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.

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.

What are “Technical Interns” or “Specified Skilled Workers”?

If you are searching about working visa for Japan online, then you might have already stumbled upon the term “Technical Intern” or “Specified Skilled Worker/Specific Skills”. But you might say, I thought Japan is not very big on internships? And what even is a “specified” skilled worker?

Well, both of these terms are products of Japanese being a very different language to English, making translations wonky at the best of times and incomprehensible at others. Another reason for the confusing nomenclature is the Japanese government’s unwillingness to be upfront about things.

Japan has a labour shortage, as you may be aware. Especially manual labour and other low-qualified positions become harder and harder to fill, in a country where the birthrate keeps declining but education standards keep going up. University graduates rarely want to work in an assembly line at a factory after all. But societal pressure is high to attend University, with people who did not go to a famous university often being considered failures before they even start working. So, how to fix the labour shortage?

Looking at other countries, importing cheap labour from poorer countries has been the capitalist go-to solution for many years. If you take in workers from a poorer nation than your own, they will not complain about low pay, or monotonous work with little advancement opportunities, because it will most likely still pay better than work in their home country. But the Japanese government has always been pretty conservative and traditionalist, so outright admitting there is a problem in glorious Nippon and accepting the help of migrant workers was out of the question. Thus the “Technical Intern” (技能実習生) scheme was born. Under the guise of benevolently volunteering to train people from poorer countries in advanced and futuristic Japanese production methods, workers from countries in south-east Asia were led into the country and effectively used as the cheap labour that Japan desperately needed. Unfortunately, abuse was and still is, rife within this system. Sending organizations charging prospective interns outrageous fees for placement in Japan, unpaid overtime due to being classified as “interns”, power and sexual harassment, confiscating of passports and other ID, basically trapping the interns in Japan, the list goes on and on. For some reason, the program is still alive and kicking, however.

Technical Interns not really fulfilling their purpose

Apart from its other failings, the “Technical Intern” program also failed to fulfil its original purpose: easing the labour shortage. The government reacted to this in 2019, creating a new visa category called “Specific Skills” (特定技能), this time also trying to prevent the aforementioned abuse from occurring, by putting in legal stipulations that workers have to be treated in the same way as Japanese employees. Working visa for Japan are manifold and very specific, the country has always been afraid to create a blanket “working visa”. So, they took that same approach with the “Specific Skill” visa, which gets its name from being only applicable for work in 14 “specific” industries, that the government identified as being especially in need of more labourers, and requiring you to have some “skill” in that area. The idea with this one is, that you would study Japanese and a “skill”, for example, farming, in your home country, pass the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) N4, as well as a test for your chosen skill, and then come to Japan and use your acquired knowledge to work there for up to five years, before returning to your home country again. Again, no blanket work permission. Another caveat is, that the industries for which you can take tests, vary widely from country to country, in some countries you will only be able to take tests for farming for example, while others only provide tests for nursing. Further, while technically everyone is eligible for a “Specific Skills” visa, tests are only available in Asian countries at the moment. You can take tests for all industries in Japan, but there is a cap for applications, and the test will be held in Japanese, meaning you will most likely need a higher Japanese proficiency than N4 to pass.

To sum it up, I cannot recommend anyone to ever come to Japan with the “Technical Intern” program. While there might be plenty of perfectly normal companies employing Interns to combat labour shortage, the chance of hitting a bad apple and having a really bad experience is just too high. The “Specific Skill” visa, on the other hand, has only been around for a bit more than a year at this point, so it is hard to say where it will go from here. First impressions are, that not many people have taken advantage of the program, in part due to the Coronavirus pandemic, but also due to a confusing application process and how hard it is to acquire the necessary certifications to be eligible for the visa. It remains to be seen, how Japan will react to and try to combat the deepening crisis that is the labour shortage from here on out.

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)!

Online Shopping (in Japan)

Online shopping is taking off around the world, or maybe it’s better to say that it is already soaring. The coronavirus has given another boost to the industry, not that it necessarily needed one. And while there are many downsides to online shopping, for example, the woeful working conditions of most delivery truck drivers that deliver your Amazon parcel, or the huge amount of waste that is created by packaging, the sheer convenience of buying what you need without actually leaving your house seems to trump these. 

Of course, this holds in Japan as well. The cities in Japan, especially the shopping areas, tend to be very crowded, making a trip to the shops bothersome. On the other hand, the number of stores in the countryside might be very limited, with no brand stores and only a few chain-stores to be found. This dichotomy creates an environment that makes it easy for online shopping to flourish. As you would expect, Amazon is a household name and used by lots of people to buy lots of different things. But different from other countries, there is still enough space in the market for another big-name online retailer, namely the Japanese company Rakuten. Another competitor to Amazon is Yahoo! Shopping, which profits from being part of the Yahoo! brand. While Amazon has seen rapid growth recently, no one of these companies has become a truly dominant force in the market, unlike other countries where Amazon is often clearly alpha in the field.

Different platforms, different prices

When you are online shopping in Japan, it is often a good idea to compare prices on different platforms (although that is a good idea everywhere). One annoying part about online shopping Japan is often the payment methods. Bank transfers are often not accepted when online shopping, so you will need some other form of payment option, which often ends up being a credit card. However, getting a credit card in Japan can be pretty daunting, up to impossible for most foreigners. Even credit cards which advertise themselves as being so easy to get that even high school students can apply are often impossible to obtain for non-Japanese people. Other options are available, such as placing an order, then going to a convenience store and process the payment there. Once the payment is processed, your article will then be shipped. But this method kind of defeats the purpose of online shopping in the first place, which is to not have to leave the house to get shopping done. So, in the end, most people use some kind of prepaid card, or, in rarer cases, a debit card. But that also comes with its own troubles. Thus, online shopping is very convenient for Japanese, but there are unfortunately some hoops to jump through for most non-Japanese.

The J-League and Football in Japan

Sports are a big part of Japanese culture. In many countries, there is often one sport that is the undisputed top dog and everything else has to fight over the scrap that is left over (for example 80.000 people show up regularly in Germany to watch football matches, but on average only 5000 people turn up to watch basketball matches). In Japan, from a competitive viewpoint baseball has traditionally been the top dog, but other sports are played recreationally as well. Especially at high-school and university levels, competition is fierce, and it is not uncommon for some people to devote more time to their sports club than to their studies, no matter how minuscule actual viewer numbers might be. The annual high-school baseball tournament Koushien is shown on national TV and is a good opportunity for schools to boost their prestige. Universities that are seen as having a rivalry, such as Keio and Waseda Universities in Tokyo, will battle it out on the baseball pitch to the chants and dances of the cheerleaders (male and female), who take their role in the team’s performance as serious as the players on the pitch.

However, recently, there has been a challenger to the popularity of baseball in Japan. Football, obviously a hugely popular sport in other parts of the world, did not even have a fully professional league in Japan until 1992 when the J-League was founded. Forward to 2020, and now there are different league tiers, called J-1, J-2 and so on, with J-1 being the top flight and if people refer to “the J-League” they are usually talking about J-1. The league’s most successful teams are the Kashima Antlers, the Yokohama F. Marinos and the Urawa Red Diamonds, with the former two being successful domestically, while the Urawa Reds are the most successful Japanese team internationally, winning the Asian Champions League twice and finishing second once. Although professional soccer is still young in Japan, there are still stories aplenty, such as Nagoya Grampus being coached by Arsene Wenger for a short while, Cerezo Osaka being the club that manga hero Captain Tsubasa plays at, or, maybe most amazingly, the story of Kazuyoshi “King Kazu” Miura, who still plays professional football for Yokohama F.C. at the ripe age of 53 years young.

With talents such as Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda, or more recently Takumi Minamino, there is certainly quality available in the league, though many talents are scouted and transfer to a European league, so if you expect the J-League to be on the same level competitively as the European leagues you will be disappointed. For a while, Japan was a popular destination for ageing European footballers to play their last few seasons, with even stars like Andres Iniesta or Lukas Podolski heading east for their final (or not so final) paychecks. But neither of them set the league on fire, so it might be said that the competitiveness of the J-League is not too far off the big European leagues, maybe akin to second-tier leagues in the big 5 (Germany, England, Spain, Italy, France).

With all that being said, the J-League is an interesting league with different clubs, different philosophies and playstyles. There is virtually no hooliganism, so going to the games is a pleasure for everyone involved and whole families go together regularly. If you are in Japan and even slightly interested in football, I recommend you give the J-League a try. The Kanto area, including greater Tokyo, has the highest concentration of clubs, but you can find stadiums were J-league games are played all over eastern and western Japan. Only the north has a somewhat sparse representation in the league, with the Tohoku region only being represented by Vegalta Sendai and Hokkaido only sporting Consadole Sapporo in the top flight of Japanese football. If you do not have time to go to the games in person, you can watch them on NHK or DAZN, with the latter offering either match highlights or full-length games.

I hope that you enjoyed this quick write-up about the J-league. I am still relatively new to watching the league, so if I got anything wrong please feel free to correct me. If you have a favourite club, tell me which it is and why you support it (I like Saitama prefecture, so I am inclined to support the Urawa Reds, as they are the local boys).