Politics in Japan

This morning I read an article saying that the cIty of Musashino (in Tokyo) is considering giving voting rights in local referendums to non-Japanese (always so charmingly referred to as “foreigners”). Voting rights for foreigners are always a contentious topic, and I am definitely not going to go into that right now. If you can read Japanese, then maybe look at Japanese Twitter to look at some Uyoku (Japanese right-wingers) going absolutely crazy about this topic. It is kind of entertaining, but also somewhat depressing.

Anyway, this gave me the idea to write a bit about political systems in Japan. Commenting on politics itself is can of worms that I am not all that eager to open, but maybe I can give you a rough overview so you can form your own opinion afterwards. Another reason for writing this article is, that I want to educate myself about this topic as well, so we will be learning together on this one.

Characteristics of politics in Japan

There are three types of elections held in Japan. First there are elections for the lower house, also called the House of Representatives. Then there are elections for the upper house, also referred to as the House of Councillors. The Prime minister is elected by these two Houses. Finally, there are local elections for posts on a prefectural or municipal level, such as governor or mayor.

Politics in Japan have been generally dominated by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) since the end of World War II. Since the its inception in the 1950s, there have only been two brief intervals were a Prime Minister and his cabinet were not from the LDP. The LDP’s junior coalition partner since 2012 is the Komeito, a small party that is closely affiliated with the Buddhist sect Soka Gakkai. Both parties stand for conservative and at times traditionalist values. Opposition parties, on the other hand, are very fragmented and there are no real contenders for the LDP’s spot as the biggest fish in the pond.

Another characteristic trait of Japanese politics is that prime ministers tend to not last very long in office. The former PM, Yoshihide Suga, served for only 1 year and 19 days and he is decidedly in the midfield there. His predecessor, Shinzō Abe, managed to last for 7 years and 266 days and holds the record as Japans longest serving prime minister. Since the 1870s, there have only been 15 prime ministers who served for longer than 1000 days.

Election-woes in Japan

A big problem for politicians in Japan is motivating their constituents to actually go out and vote. For the last general election, voter turnout was at a measly 55%. The Coronavirus measures of the former PM and his cabinet were deeply unpopular, and people were actually hopeful that turnout would go up. But in the end it ended up being one of the lowest turnouts ever. There are many reasons for this and going into them would probably amount to writing a thesis about this topic. From what I have gathered in my time living in Japan, politics are simply not a topic that interests many people. Especially among the young, politics are seen as “uncool” and being interested in politics is considered to makes you an Uyoku (Japanese right winger).

Since younger people do not vote, politicians focus their policies and campaigns heavily on the older generations. This creates the perception that they do not care about younger generations, leading to people in their 20s and 30s feeling disenfranchised. This cycle seems to be one of the bigger factors for the low voter turnout.

Finally, since this article was inspired by an article about voting rights for foreign residents, let us also very briefly talk about them. Simply put, short of changing your nationality, there is no way to gain access to voting rights as a foreigner in Japan at the moment. According to information I found online, there are about 40 municipalities in Japan that allow foreign residents to participate in referendums at the municipal level, but even this is rare. From what I have heard, there were movements to introduce expanded voting rights for foreign residents in the past, but they were shut down by conservative politicians. Personally, I feel it would be a nice gesture to allow longterm foreign residents to vote at least in the mayor or prefectural governor elections, but I have my doubts that this is ever going to happen.

Some tips on learning Japanese – Teachers, tools and attitude

As I keep stressing in various previous articles, Japanese is a very, very difficult language to learn. I’ve been studying for over five years, and while I would consider myself a decently fluent speaker I am still nowhere near-native levels and still constantly encounter unknown words, phrases or Kanji. Unfortunately, learning Japanese is essential if you want to live and work in Japan. Especially when it comes to the latter, you will find it very difficult to find jobs in Japan if you do not speak what’s considered “business level” Japanese. In practice, this most often means holding Japanese Language Proficiency Test (the most commonly recognized Japanese language test) N2 level, or JLPT N2 as it is usually abbreviated. This test is only held twice a year in Japan, and abroad it is often only held once a year, if it is held at all, and it’s considered fairly difficult as far as language tests go.

But if you are set on working in Japan, you will need to study the language and most likely also pass this test, Japanese love their test certificates after all, and this is also applied to foreigners looking for jobs. I am by no means an expert, but still, I thought I would share three things with you, that I consider essential if you want to become any good at Japanese. This topic is near and dear to me, so please excuse the length of this article.

The right teacher

Find someone that enjoys engaging with you

Nowadays, there are many, many different options for you to start studying the language. Most people are probably going to start by taking Japanese classes in university/college classes. Others might go to Japanese language schools, attend online courses or watch lectures on YouTube. But especially if you are just starting out, having the right teacher is very important. Having somebody point out all the mistakes, that you are bound to make as a beginner, is very helpful. This becomes less important as you become more advanced and able to notice your mistakes yourself, but at the beginning, it is invaluable that you have a teacher that takes interest in your progress. If you are at university, and your teacher just stands in front and reads from your textbook then you are probably not going to make any progress. But your teacher does not necessarily have to be someone that’s a professional. Maybe you have a friend that’s good at Japanese, or even better a Japanese friend who is willing to help you. Or maybe you are in an online community where people are giving out advice. Although you should take advice from strangers with a grain of salt, you don’t really know their credentials after all (the same goes for this blog then, I guess).

The right tools

Now let me preface this by saying that I do not believe that there is such a thing as the “right tool” or even “the right way to study”. Everybody will have different tools and methods that work for them. Finding what works for you is also part of the learning process. Thanks to the internet and smartphones, there are now more tools available than ever and finding the right one for you is becoming increasingly difficult. Here are some tools that I used, or still use when studying Japanese.

1. Anki
https://ankiweb.net/about

Anki is an app that lets you create flashcards. And it is very competent at that. You can create large decks of digital flashcards and take them with you, wherever you go. When reviewing your flashcards, you can then choose how difficult a given card was for you. If you had a hard time remember the meaning of a given word, you can let the app know and it will show you the same word when you review again tomorrow, the day after tomorrow and so on until you’ve managed to remember the word. But even if you let the app know that a word was easy to remember for you, it will still occasionally show you that word so that you don’t forget. This method is called SRS, or Spaced Repetition System, and is scientifically proven to work to help with language studying. Anki has a web version, desktop versions, as well as an Android and an iOS app (all are free except the iOS version. I just use the web version on my iPhone). 

2. Wanikani
https://www.wanikani.com

Now, to be honest, I have not used Wanikani a lot. It’s a website for studying Kanji and comes highly recommended by various people across the internet so I thought I would best include it. You are taught Kanji across different levels and it comes with many useful hints, mnemonics that help you remember kanji and it also teaches related vocabulary. From what I have seen, it seems like a great little website. The reason I have not used it, is simply that there is no option for advanced students to skip the easier Kanji. When I came across the website, I had already been studying for multiple years and repeating all the beginner Kanji from the beginning was not very appealing to me. But if you are a beginner or more patient than I am, then Wanikani seems to be a great tool to use. The first few levels are free but be aware that you are going to have to pay money (subscription) to unlock higher levels.

3. Bunpro
https://www.bunpro.jp

What Wanikani is to Kanji, Bunpro is to Japanese grammar. You can select a JLPT level and are then given grammar points and example sentences to memorize. Afterwards, you can review what you’ve studied and quiz yourself. Just be aware that grammar explanations can be pretty barebones, so do not consider this an adequate replacement for a textbook. The best approach, in my opinion, is to study grammar with a textbook, but then use Bunpro to review and truly memorize the individual points. Basic functionality is free, but to really use the website to its full potential you need to subscribe.

4. NHK News Web Easy
https://www3.nhk.or.jp/news/easy/

Now, all the studying in the world is not going to make you fluent, if you do not use what you have learned. If you are studying English for example, there is a lot of material aimed at people picking up English as their second language, magazines, books, YouTube channels and so on. But Japanese is a rare language, and therefore material aimed at students of Japanese is scarce and hard to come by. One of the easier resources to access is NHK Easy News, a news website aimed at Japanese children. Usually, there are multiple articles a day, written in a less formal style than normal news. Further, you can toggle Furigana for all Kanji, meaning you do not have to look up every word and can often read articles in one go. There are even some words that you can hover over, to get an explanation of their meaning (in Japanese). Just remember that the service is aimed at Japanese children, i.e., native speakers, so it is likely not going to follow conventions that you are used to from your textbooks. Still, a great website to get yourself started on actually consuming Japanese content.

The right attitude

頑張ろう!Do your best, but don’t overdo it

I have saved the most important and most difficult point for last. Having the right attitude is incredibly important when studying Japanese. You have to accept that this is going to be difficult. You have to accept that there are people out there who are better at speaking Japanese than you. You have to accept that you are probably going to keep studying regularly over a long period of time to see any results. It can be incredibly frustrating. I have studied Japanese for five years, lived in the country for three. I have probably never invested more time and energy into a single activity. But still, I come across words and Kanji that I’ve never seen when I read the news or watch TV. It can be tempting to say, well if I just study for four hours every day, then I will be fluent in no time! But in my experience, obsessing about studying often has the opposite effect and you will instead burn yourself out and maybe even grow to hate the language, and by association everything Japanese. I have seen it happen to other people. Learn at your own pace. Do not compare yourself to others. The internet provides us with great tools for language studying, but it also shows us success stories of other people. You will come across people saying they studied eight hours every day and became fully fluent in a year. Do not listen to these people. Find your own way, your own pace. If you have the drive and energy to spend eight hours a day studying something, you should probably use it to make the world a better place.

Medical and Health Care in Japan – What to do at the Doctors Part II

If have not seen Part I of this series, I highly recommend you to go and check it out here!

Last week, I left you with a bit of a cliffhanger on part I. Sure you are now face-to-face with a doctor, but what happens next?! That is a good questions and it depends a lot on your personal situation, but after finishing last weeks article I still felt like I had more to say on the topic so here goes.

A few more things before you enter the 診察室

But first, we have to go one step back to the point where you submit your カルテ (the clipboard with a document that has all your relevant information on it). Depending on what kind of problems you are having, you might be asked to measure your pulse first. Yes, you often have to do this yourself but it is quite simple. They will show you to a machine that looks somewhat like an old printer from the 90s with a big hole on the side. You then stick your arm through that whole, tell the machine to start (there’s usually only one button, so press that one) and it will then measure your pulse. The result will be printed on a small paper slip which you hand to the reception staff. If you are nervous and have a high pulse as a result, they will ask you to try and calm down a bit and then measure again. If your pulse is still high after your second measurement, they might measure again manually or simply just roll with it.

Next, Japanese doctors love taking your blood (further confirming my theory that all doctors are secretly vampires) so expect to get pricked at least once. Again, depending on the type of treatment this might happen before or after you talked to the doctor but it is very likely to happen. The process of taking blood is pretty universal I think, the only stumbling block is when they ask you whether they can disinfect the area with an alcohol wipe first. Just say はい when you hear the word アルコール (a good idea in general if you are into that sort of stuff), or refuse if you are allergic.

Entering the lair

Now onto the really difficult stuff, the actual talking to the doctor. When you are called, you can proceed directly into the 診察室. Some people knock before they enter, but you do not have to. Unless you specifically go to a doctor that can speak English (or whatever language) and is advertised as such, it is best to expect that they can only speak Japanese. It is very important that you are able to express yourself properly, so the doctor can get a good idea of what is bothering you. If you cannot speak Japanese, best bring somebody who can.

During the interview, the doctor will try to diagnose as much as they can. Sometimes they might be able to tell what is wrong by simply looking at you. If more tests are necessary, you might have to go out and wait in the waiting room again until the tests can be performed. You will then be called to perform further tests until they can determine what they can do to help you, at which point they will call you into the 診察室 again and tell you as much. Generally, you will be given a thorough explanation of their findings and what they think is the best way to treat you. This often includes a boatload of pills and other medicines. Finally, you will be asked to go and wait in the waiting room while they process your payment.

Escaping the castle

Some people are want to leave, once the final consultation with the doctor is over but do not leave just yet. You still have to pay your 30% share of the costs. Simply go to the waiting room and wait until the receptionist calls for you. When paying, cash is often your best bet. Some clinics and hospitals may accept cashless payment, but from my experience most do not. If you do not have enough cash, it is generally acceptable to go to the next ATM and withdraw some (they have your info after all, should you decide to simply leg it). Make sure you double-check the receipt, I have been charged 60.000 Yen in the past when I should have been charged only 6.000. After you have paid, you will receive your prescription for your medication. Now you have almost made it.

The last step on your journey is to pick up your medication. Prescription medication is sold at the 薬局 (yakkyoku) and there are often several 薬局 in the vicinity of a clinic or hospital. You want to be on the lookout for the following sign: 処方せん受付 (shobousenuketsuke). This roughly translates to “We accept prescriptions” and is often displayed very prominently in front of the store. Go in, and present your prescription and insurance card first. Now comes another one of Japan’s peculiarities, the 薬手帳 (kusuritechou). This is a small booklet where all the prescription medication that you receive is logged. If you do not have one, they will make you one for free. If you forgot it, simply tell them, it’s no big deal. Also, you often have to fill out a カルテ again if it is your first time here. After that is done, it’s to waiting again. Once they have assembled all the medication you will be called and get the same explanation about the medications that you already got from the doctor. Then you pay and are finally free to go about your way.

That was quite the adventure, but I hope that it was useful to one or two of you out there. If you have any questions or concerns, feel free to leave me a comment or contact me via the contact form or social media. Have a good one and see you next week!

Medical and Health Care in Japan – What to do at the Doctors’

If you want to live in Japan – or even if you are just visiting – it is very important to get familiar with the medical system. Depending on where you are from, the medical system might be very different or not that different at all. Still, going to the doctor was always a challenge for me, even in my home country, so going to the doctor in Japan sometimes seemed like an insurmountable hurdle. Now that I have gotten a bit older, I feel like I have gotten somewhat used to the idea of having somebody else analyze and judge my body, although I still feel uncomfortable. So, for people that may still be struggling with the idea of visiting a hospital or a doctor in Japan, I hope that I can make it a bit easier for you.

But first, what about money?

If your stay in Japan is 6 months or longer, you are required by law to have health insurance. Generally speaking, there are two types of health insurance in Japan: one for unemployed people and one for employed people (I simplify a lot here, if you want to read more about insurance I have written an article about it). Once you are at a medical facility, the two types of insurance generally do work the same though. People who have insurance, generally only have to cover 30% of the fee of most general medical procedures with the insurance covering the remaining 70%. There are some procedures that are not covered by insurance (cosmetic surgery, childbirth, STD testing among others), so it is a good idea to check in advance. Also, since I see it mentioned sometimes: no calling an ambulance does not cost you anything unless you are judged to have made a prank call.

The language barrier

While there are some English-speaking clinics in Tokyo, and younger doctors may sometimes know rudimentary English, hospital or clinic staff will generally only be able to speak Japanese. If you feel like you might not be able to explain yourself, try searching online for places that might be able to help you in English (or any other Language) or bring someone who can translate on your behalf. There are also translation services available that will dispatch a translator to accompany you or translate for you over the phone – for a cost.

I have seen other blogs do vocabulary lists, so I guess I should try making one too. So here is a list of the different medical practices and what they are called in Japanese (not an exhaustive list since I will probably forget some). The translations are not literal and are meant for people to understand what they can expect when they visit this type of clinic.

内科 – naika – internist, generalist medicine
歯科 – shika – dentist
眼科 – ganka – eye medicine
耳鼻科 – jibika – ear, nose, and throat medicine
皮膚科 – hifuka – skin medicine
尿器科 – nyoukika – urology
胃腸科 – ichouka – stomach and bowel medicine
小児科 – shounika – pediatrician
(産)婦人科 – (san)fujinka – (obstetrician), gynecologist

Obviously, there are many more but I think the above list should cover most basic needs. Clinics will often specialize in one of the above. When it comes to hospitals, there are specialized, as well as generalist places that cover a wider range of disciplines.

I have a medical problem, what to do?

If it is an emergency, stop reading this and call an ambulance. Otherwise, choose what kind of treatment you need from the list above and take it to Google, together with the name of your area (for example “耳鼻科 小平市”). If you do not know what kind of treatment you need, go to an internist and they will generally tell you where you have to go. Google reviews are a decent indicator of what you can expect. If you want to take it further and make sure you go to the best doctor (often simply meaning the one with the friendliest staff), there are also dedicated review sites but they are all in Japanese. If it is not urgent, consider calling in advance to make an appointment. Especially in bigger cities, waiting times can be quite long if you simply walk in.

Speaking of which, once you walked into a clinic/hospital, the first thing you need to do is make your way to the reception (受付, uketsuke). Explain why you are here – just something like “My eye hurts and I would like it looked at” is enough – and if you have an appointment, let them know. Then you will be asked to hand over your insurance card and, if it is your first time at this particular clinic/hospital, you will also be asked to fill out a カルテ (karute from German Karte, many german loan words in Japanese medicine), which forms the basis of your medical file. The カルテ is in Japanese and most places will expect you to fill it out in Japanese, so if you can not write Japanese very well, ask somebody who can. That being said, some of the information asked is very basic, such as your name, age, and address, but sometimes it might ask for important information such as allergies or illnesses you have/had, so make sure you read and understand everything.

Once you have filled out your カルテ, hand it back to the receptionist and they will return your insurance card to you. Now you have to wait for the doctor to see you. Some places have a number system, where you receive a number at the reception and are called by that. Other places will simply call you by your name. In any case, once you are called, you may proceed to the 診察室 (shinsatsushitsu, examination room) where the doctor will have a first chat with you, figure out what is wrong and how they can help you.

And with that, we have reached the end of this article, since everything that comes after this point will vary greatly on a person-by-person basis. I hope I was able to give you a general idea of what you can expect. If all goes well, I will write a bit more about this topic next friday. See you then!

Living and Working in Japan – Then and Now

I am now getting close to completing my fourth year of living in Japan, and recently I have been thinking about how this might have changed me and my perspective. Living in a foreign country is obviously a huge challenge and if you go in with the expectation that everything will go according to plan you are bound to be disappointed. So your perspective, your plans, your very idea of yourself and your life might change and it is up to you to figure out whether this is a good thing or a bad thing for you. However, in order to not get too philosophical and write a more relatable article, I will try to stick to a single topic – my expectations before coming to Japan and how they are holding up.

Expectations are there to be subverted – that does not have to be a bad thing

My expectations before going to Japan

Not to toot my own horn here, but I feel like I had pretty realistic expectations before coming to Japan for the first time. I did not expect futuristic skylines or real-life anime characters walking around in the streets (they do in Shibuya though). I expected people to be friendly and customer service to be top-notch. Also, I expected people to be pretty tech-savvy – high-tech and Japan supposedly go hand-in-hand after all – and generally very interested in the goings-on outside Japan. My expectation was that people were cooking Italian food while listening to rock music from abroad. I had read many of the books by Murakami Haruki and his characters definitely influenced my perception.

My impressions upon arriving in Japan

The one thing that I completely underestimated before coming to Japan is the sheer amount of people (especially true for Tokyo). I grew up in a town with a population of around 600.000, which is not exactly small by European standards. But coming to Japan and seeing the masses that flow through airports and train stations here was definitely a big shock. Another impression that I had immediately upong landing was that there are a lot of restaurants and other food-related shops. Advertisements seemed to be either women in short skirts, some exotic travel destinations or, more often than not, somehow food-related.

My Expectations – Four years later

But the point of the whole article was to reflect a bit about what has changed. I often hear that people are bothered by being treated differently due to being a foreigner, even after they have been here for a long time. For me, this is not such a big concern. I recognize that I am different from all the Japanese people around me and being treated accordingly does not bother me (for now, at least). I try my best to fit in, of course, I speak fluent Japanese and try my best to observe rules and customs, but at the same time, I recognize that I am different from those around me just by virtue of having lived somewhere else for 25 years. As long as people do not treat me like an idiot, I am generally fine. But if I am to be treated differently, then I expect to be given some slack when I behave differently in some situations. Sure, when in Rome, do as the Romans do are wise words to live by, but for me at least there are limitations – you can only bend so much without breaking.

As for my expectations, I think it is fair to say that I was pretty off-base, even though I did not picture an anime-fairytale wonderland. While customer service is polite, there can also be a robot-like quality to it, which makes it hard to deal with unforeseen situations. People are generally friendly, but distant and it is just as hard to make meaningful connections as it is anywhere else. Also, the high-tech image is a complete hoax, many people are so stuck in the past that they are still using Windows XP on their work computers. And while there are a lot of people interested in the goings-on outside of Japan, I am reminded of a zoo, where the visitors represent the Japanese, the animals represent everything and everyone non-Japanese, and there is a big sheet of glass that separates them which represents their Japaneseness. There are a great many people here that think that they are different – although not necessarily better – from the rest of the world and I guess if you imagine something for long enough than it will eventually become true.

As for me, I still enjoy living and working in Japan. Sure, it is different from what I expected but I adapted and made it work for me. I enjoy the challenge of communicating and finding my way in a different culture and while it can sometimes be very frustrating, I feel like I am growing and learning so much that it is all worth it. Never stop dancing is the message of one of Murakami’s best books, and living in Japan is definitely a quickstep.

Importing Holidays – Valentine’s

Since last Sunday was Valentine’s Day, I thought I ought to post at least something about it, since it is a pretty unique aspect of the Japanese culture. Be warned, I’m not the biggest proponent of customs like this one, so here you will probably not really find a rosy telling of how everybody gets handmade chocolate.

While in most other countries, Valentine’s is decidedly for couples only, and even then mostly just used as a justification to go on a more expensive date, in Japan everybody participates. Sure, couples might go on fancy dates on Valentine’s in Japan as well, but generally, the day is all about chocolate. Specifically about women giving men chocolate. Smells of a marketing campaign? Well, you would be completely correct on that one, according to Wikipedia the act of giving chocolate was promoted by confectionary makers in the 1950s, and apparently, it caught on (not the most reliable of sources, but I’m not writing an essay). It must have been some pretty impressive marketing because Valentine’s day in Japan is now not only about couples, women will give chocolate to all sorts of men in their life, not only their significant other. Family (I got chocolate from my Japanese sister and mother-in-law, yay), friends, even co-workers, everybody can expect to receive tasty treats. Starting around the middle of January, department stores et al. will start selling large quantities of chocolate. Only on very rare occasions will somebody actually go through the trouble of making chocolate treats by themselves.

The true marketing masterstroke, however, is in the fact that they simply did it again, just a month later. Enter “White Day”, a Japan-exclusive custom observed on the 14th of March. While on Valentine’s Day, women are supposed to give chocolate to men, on White Day the roles are reversed. Now men are supposed to give chocolate to women. Originally, you were supposed to give white chocolate, marshmallows, or other white sweets – hence the name – but by now that custom seems to have been eroded and men will give all sorts of chocolate. If they give any at all, I have lived in Japan for around four years now and I can’t remember ever seeing a man giving chocolate to women on White Day. My best guess would be that it is a generational thing, with younger generations not really following this particular custom while maybe older generations still do.

Anyway, a rather short post about the odd way of celebrating Valentine’s Day in Japan. While it is most certainly an odd holiday everywhere in the world – couples should not really need a special day to celebrate their relationship – the pure commercialization of the Japanese variant has always been off-putting to me. If I give chocolate to my sister and mother-in-law (as I am supposed to, per the White Day marketing campaign), it’s because I like them and want to thank them, not simply going through the motions.

The Coronavirus in Japan (as of December 2020)

As has been the case in many countries all over the world as of late, daily infection numbers are on the rise in Japan. After averaging around 500 to 700 new infections every day for most of September and October, since mid-November numbers have started multiplying rapidly. Today (10th of December 2020) a new record number was reached with over 2900 reported infections. The new average seems to be somewhere around the high 2000nds. It is hard to predict how the situation will develop going forward, but one cannot help but look at similar situations in Europe or America, where a similar pattern of a sudden increase in infections numbers soon spiralled out of control.

A graph, showing trends in daily infections. Source: Google

Interestingly, the government has done fairly little to actively combat the virus. While there have been calls to refrain from going out and meeting in public, these have been parroted by politicians here since the start of the pandemic, they have – so far – failed to reach the public with new and motivating slogans. There is a noticeable “Corona-fatigue”, with many people ignoring the requested self-regulations past the most basic ones. Granted, almost everyone is wearing masks, washing their hands regularly and making use of the disinfectant that is available everywhere you go. But for the most part, that’s it. People are commuting to work like normal, travelling (albeit only inland) like normal, meeting friends for dinner like normal. The only new development seems to be, that the traditional “Bounenkai (忘年会)”, parties held by companies at the end of the year for their employees, will not be held by many companies this year. But these are a left-over of a business-culture from a bygone era, with many young people despising these gatherings. So rather than self-regulation to prevent the spread of Corona, maybe this one is more down to companies seizing a chance to do away with an unloved custom. On the streets and in the offices of Tokyo, talk about the Coronavirus seems to have changed, with some people calling the virus “just another form of the common cold”.

At least everybody is still wearing masks

Other than that, efforts by the government seem to mostly focus around keeping the economy intact, as well as to ensure that the Olympics can finally go-ahead next year. Japan has put an order in to buy enough vaccines to vaccinate all residents of Japan and hopes to be able to start vaccinating people from early next year, starting of course with those that are most vulnerable, e.g. elderly people and people suffering from existing conditions. There is also talk around allowing tourists back into the country around spring next year, the first waves of tourists would be heavily monitored, and then, starting with the Olympics, a complete opening of the country is also not off the table.

In summary, cases are rising, and hospital beds are becoming scarce, yet nothing seems to have changed in our daily lives. Government is banking hard on the vaccine being available early next year, so they can go ahead with their plans to hold the Olympics and open up the country to tourists again. It remains to be seen, as to whether this will prove to have been the right or the wrong call.

If you are interested, here is some further reading on the Coronavirus in Japan, here is a small collection of articles from this week.

A few words about homestays in Japan

For many of us, spending time in a foreign country is about getting to know the local culture, being exposed to something different from back home, meeting different people and, as a result, growing as a person, thanks to all the unique experiences that we would be unable to get if we stayed in our own backyard. I used to pretty timid and not very outgoing, but ever since coming to Japan for the first time it seemed like that has been changing gradually. Now, how much of that really comes down to being in a foreign country, and how much of that is simply due to growing older (though not wiser) is hard to say, but I still would like to believe that spending time in a foreign country helps to at least accelerate growth and development of character in some fashion. 

Japan is not known to be very multicultural, with almost 98% of the population being ethnically Japanese

The problem with experiencing local culture and getting to know people in Japan is that the country is unfortunately not very welcoming to foreigners. Not that you will be discriminated against outright or attacked due to being a foreigner, but there will always be situations where you will feel left out due to being non-Japanese. First and most obviously, there is the language barrier, with Japanese being very difficult to learn (as I keep stressing) and many Japanese people also being unable to speak a second language. But beyond that, there is also a huge cultural gap on both ends, where the Japanese side thinks that the “Gaijin” (a kind of derogatory word for foreigner) are very weird, while the “Gaijin” think of Japanese behaviour and customs as arcane. Even those Japanese that specifically seek contact with foreigners, oftentimes tend to idolize them and put them on a pedestal, which can be a very lonely existence as well. 

Which brings me to the actual topic of today’s article, homestays. As the name implies, a homestay means you will be staying at someone’s home, instead of renting your own room or apartment. What this usually means, is that you will be staying with a family in their family home. Reasons for this might be manifold, you might be participating in an exchange program, or maybe the family is looking for someone to teach English to their young kids, the list goes on. While there will definitely be an adaptation phase, where you will probably be treated in a manner that is more akin to a guest than to an actual member of the household if you manage to get along with your host family and stay there long enough, life will soon return to normal and you will be able to experience normal Japanese everyday life. 

Most commonly, homestays are done by people of high-school age, and the number of people who feel ready to go to a country as foreign as Japan before even having graduated from school will probably be pretty low. But I would say, do not let that discourage you. I was fortunate enough to be able to do a homestay during my time as an exchange student in Japan (I was around 25 at the time), and while it was a very hard year in some respects, I feel like I gained a different sense of appreciation for Japanese culture and customs. Being able to practice your Japanese and getting used to speaking it daily is just an added bonus. Due to Japan not being very welcoming, many people fall into the trap of hardly socializing with new people, spending their time instead with predominantly English-speaking friends in predominantly English-speaking neighbourhoods. I would argue, that living with a Japanese family is a good way of avoiding – or getting out of – this trap, dropping your inhibitions and becoming able to form meaningful friendships with many different people, regardless of their Nationality.

How do People in Japan Spend their Free Time?

What do people actually do with their free time? While this is all just from my personal opinion and experience, I thought I’d offer my take on the matter at hand. If you believe online commentors than people in Japan have to work from 8:00 to 22:00, and when they finally make it home, they only have time to gulp down a can of beer and then fall onto their futon, completely exhausted. On the weekend, they will spend their time lethargically in front of the TV, taking anything in, questioning nothing. Or so the story goes. Anyone who has actually met any Japanese people or spend any significant amount of time in the country will be able to tell you that the reality is often quite different. Japanese people can be quite dedicated to their hobbies, with many people, especially younger ones, frequently stating that they only work so they can sustain their hobby. 

Hobbies are very varied, but from my observation, it seems like Japanese often have one hobby that they are then very serious about, instead of pursuing multiple hobbies at the same time. For example, if someone’s hobby is golf, they will practice their swing religiously and go golfing as many times as they can during a month. But due to their dedication to Golf, they will most likely not be able to pursue any other hobbies for a meaningful amount of time. Others might dedicate their time to Videogames, Reading or other such things, but the general pattern of only having one true hobby mostly holds in my experience. 

One rather Japan-exclusive hobby, that’s especially popular with middle-aged men, is “Pachinko”, a sort of slot-machine and one of the few forms of gambling that is common in Japan. A Pachinko parlour can usually be identified by the music, that’s often played out front, as well by the suffocating smell of old tobacco smoke and the roar of the air-conditioning unit, that is working overtime trying to remove said smell. The game itself is a game of chance, sometimes referred to as “vertical pinball”, where the player has to get one or more balls into holes on the gaming board to score points. Gambling for money is illegal in Japan, with laws being so stringent that often not even Videogame tournaments (with Videogames often being based on skill, not luck) are unable to award cash prizes to winners. Pachinko parlours get around this by providing no actual cash prizes in the parlour itself. Instead, if you win big you will receive tokens (specifically the balls that you play the game with) which you can then exchange for prizes such as perfume bottles or similar items. You then take that perfume bottle to another location, often conveniently located right outside the parlour, where you then exchange that perfume bottle for a set amount of money. This second location might try to invoke the impression that it is not connected to the parlour at all, but it is obviously connected to the business and often owned by the owner of the Pachinko parlour. Be that as it may, prices are a lot lower than at casinos, for example, so you are less likely to win or lose big sums of cash.

Social drinking is still very popular

Another popular pastime is obviously spending time with friends or co-workers. Be it at the fabled forced drinking parties with your colleagues after work, which often ends up not being very forceful at all, or just going out with friends, visiting a restaurant, eating food and drinking copious amounts of booze are no less popular than they are in other countries. Rating websites for restaurants are very popular and customers take ratings very seriously, with star ratings over 3.5 being considered reasonably high, and some people make it their hobby to visit as many different restaurants as possible and then write reviews about them online. This activity is called 食べ歩き(tabearuki), which translate to something like “walking and eating”, so people go to a neighbourhood, walk around and try the food at different restaurants. Another interpretation of the activity is when people walk around the area literally eating while walking, so usually, this involves smaller snack-like dishes. This is popular with young couples as well, especially at the earlier stages of a relationship where sitting across from another in a restaurant might sometimes still feel awkward.

Be it playing games, eating, drinking, spending time at parks with friends and/or pets, socializing, you name it if there is a given activity than there will probably be someone that has made that activity his or her hobby, just like in any other country. I am by no means an expert on the subject, and today’s article feels a bit “rambly” to me, but I still hope you enjoyed what I had to say. Thanks for reading.

Vending Machines in Japan

If you’ve ever been to Japan, then you will know that there are vending machines everywhere. Seriously, in bigger cities, you can’t walk 20 meters without spotting a vending machine that sells various drinks. Hot and cold, Tea and coffee, lemonade, coke, energy drinks, sometimes even alcohol like beer, wine or sake, there is almost no drink that you will not be able to find in a vending machine somewhere. You can find them in malls, train stations and other public places, but also often in residential areas, just along the street, in house foyers, almost everywhere you go you will be greeted by the familiar hum and glow. As you leave the city, there will be fewer machines, but even in the countryside, you will still be able to find lots of them all over the place. Due to the sheer number of machines, there are also many variations. From modern ones, that accept cashless payment via your smartphone, to older ones that will not even accept paper money, only coins. As to why these drink vending machines are so ubiquitous, it is hard to say. Japan can be pretty hot and humid in Summer, so it is important to stay hydrated and they often sell isotonic drinks in summer. But then, you could simply walk to the convenience store that is just a further 30 meters down the road. Another reason I’ve heard mentioned, especially by older folks from the countryside, is that they are good for public safety because they emit light and make it harder for criminals to use the darkness to be criminal. Japan is a pretty safe country, and considering that there are lots of vending machines, there just might be some connection there. Maybe other countries could follow suit and replace their police force with vending machines. They are also less likely to shoot someone.

But back to the topic of vending machines. While there are all sorts of different machines, selling goods like the aforementioned drinks and alcohol, soup, snacks, cigarettes and kid’s toys, there are also more obscure ones, selling adult goods or even (allegedly) used underwear. Another common type is found in restaurants, where you choose what you want to eat at the machine, pay upfront and then simply hand the slip of paper that you receive to the staff and they will prepare what you ordered. These machines are commonly found in ramen shops, but also other restaurants and fast-food chains. While there are modern machines with a touchscreen that shows you exactly what you ordered and might even have an English menu option, the ones that you will find in ramen shops are usually more akin to the picture on the right, and can be hard to navigate if you are not used to them. 

Getting your ramen-ticket

I greatly prefer ramen from a mom-and-pop style restaurant, so I will use this opportunity to tell you all about these machines. Usually, the menu options will only be written in Japanese and there will be no pictures. The upper section usually contains buttons for the different kinds of ramen soup that you can order, while the lower section is reserved for toppings and extras, such as eggs, rice or fried dumplings (Gyoza). Another quirk of these machines is, that they often only accept coins or 1000 Yen bills, so if you only have a 5000 or 10,000 Yen bill, you have to ask the staff to change it for you (just walk up to the counter and say 両替ください, ryougae kudasai, please exchange money for me). Many machines will not automatically return your change, so after you have ordered something and received your paper slip (食券, shokken, meal ticket), make sure to look for a button that says おつり (otsuri, change), and crank/push it to receive your change, otherwise, the person behind you will probably notify you that you’ve forgotten your change. Then, simply take a seat at the counter and hand your paper slip to the staff. Sometimes they might ask you questions, like what kind of noodles do you want, if you want them hard or soft, or other things. But if they notice that you do not speak Japanese, they will probably just prepare it like they think you might like it. 

And that’s it! At first, it can be a bit daunting to walk into a mom-and-pop style ramen shop but trust me, the ramen here tastes so much better than in the tourist-friendly chain stores that it is worth it. Sometimes you might make a mistake and get something different from what you wanted to eat, but in that case, just treat it as an experience and try again another time. Enjoy ramen (and all the other various things that Japanese vending machines have in store)!