My family and I are leaving Japan after 5 years. This post is a reflection on life in Japan and my likes and dislikes about the country and culture. Living a global nomadic life, I’ve lived in many different countries and realized that every place has things that I like about it and things I dislike. Overall, the Japanese treated my family kindly and we will have fond memories of our time here.
Japan is interesting because it is distinct. With increased connectivity of communication and transportation, many places around the world are becoming more similar, especially in richer nations. Japan, however, is like no other place in the world. I think this is because it was closed off from the outside world for over 200 years until the mid-19th century. The isolation enabled the culture to develop independently of others. The second factor is the homogenous population. Japan does not allow immigration at any scale, so ideas brought by residents is limited. We were temporary residents working for a Japanese foundation and not immigrants. There are very few foreigners living in Japan than other countries.
Society is impacted greatly by geography. Japan is a crowded island. The area of the islands of Japan are about the size of the state of California. There are 40 million Californians, compared to the 127 million Japanese. Taking into account the mountainous landscape of Japan’s location on the Pacific ring-of-fire, the amount of suitable living space is limited. In order to make the society function smoothly in this densely populated nation, the behavior of individuals needs to be strictly controlled through laws, rules and etiquette. For example, when I purchased a car, I needed a certificate stating I had an available parking space from my landlord. Often the police will come and inspect the address on the certificate to verify that a space actually exists and is of proper size. The narrow streets do not allow for street parking. I got caught parking overnight in front of our home and the fine was 15,000 Yen ($140 USD). In a place with more space, parking would not be so tightly controlled.
Japan is the oldest country in the world demographically. Approximately half a million more citizens are dying each year than are being born here. As with many developed nations, the birth rate has fallen and the government is desperate for Japanese women to have more children. However, in practice, they do not make it easy, with limited and expensive day care, high educational expenses and many jobs for young people are low-paying. The government is worried because of the increasing costs of health care and pensions for its elderly. With less young people entering the work force, there is more pressure on the government to fund these programs. That is the major reason we left Japan: the high tax burden. Around 50% of our income was taxed and that did not include sales taxes, highway tolls and various fees charged for government services. Unlike the government, I am in favor of depopulation here. There are too many people and if they do not allow major immigration, Japan will have a population around 50 million by 2100. That sounds like a reasonable population density to me! The challenge will be to pay for taking care of the big demographic layer of +60 year olds as they age and die.
For every aspect of Japan that I like, there is a side of it I don’t like. Regarding taxes, it drives foreign teachers with children out of the country, but the high taxes do provide a world-class infrastructure of safety. One rarely sees a pot hole on a road in Japan. An ambulance or fire truck will be at an emergency in literally minutes. A small fire at our school had a dozen fire and emergency vehicles at the scene very quickly. If you get in trouble, the system here will save you. That gives residents a peace of mind. After a few days here in the USA, that is one of the first things I notice is the poor condition of the roads.
The aspect I loved the most in Japan was the ability to ride my bicycle anywhere safely. There are a lot of pedestrians and cyclists, both for recreation and just getting one’s daily errands completed. Drivers are courteous and well-trained to be aware of bikes and walkers. The roads and sidewalks are also in mint condition. I biked to all of my meetings at the university from my school, 19 kilometers away. I rode mostly on the busy 171 street and never had even a close call with a vehicle. I really got into cycling while here and it gave me unmeasurable pleasure to cycle through the landscapes of Kansai, both urban and rural. I don’t think I’ll ever have a better place to cycle.
Osaka is the eating capital of Japan and the quality, variety and distinctiveness of Japanese cuisine is outstanding! I ate the best seafood I’ll most like ever have. There were so many different species of fish and marine organisms, from winter conger eel, to tuna sushi to roasted squid on a stick. I even tried whale during my time living in here (not great). I developed my palette for seafood and learned to use chop sticks comfortably.
Everyone takes their job seriously in Japan and tries their best, regardless of how much they earn or how prestigious the position is perceived. It is really nice when the convenience store or parking attendant goes out of their way to make sure you receive the best service. The Japanese pay attention to the details and one can be assured that all options will be considered when you are getting a service, which is especially nice when at the dentist or at the hospital. The flip side of this is people stick to procedures, checklists, etc. and when the occasional out-of-the-box thinking is required, it will not happen.
One of my goals in moving to Japan was to experience the idea of the group being more important than the individual. Working in affluent schools, people with wealth do not flaunt it. It was refreshing to see so much modesty in a culture and people thinking about the feelings of others. At times this is suffocating however, and I am not sure if it is healthy not to be able to express oneself freely. Related to this is the closed and quiet nature of Japan. We missed the warm, open and loud relationships of Latin America and southern Eastern Europe. I didn’t miss open conflict with people, but on the reverse of that, I did miss easily connecting with people. Part of it was language.
The city of Minoh was absolutely a great place to live. Located so close to the Minoh Quasi National Park was the key for me. I loved having access to forest and nature minutes away, especially in a metropolitan area of 18-20 million people. The suburb was less crowded than other areas of the city, with plenty of parks and green areas. Our home was huge according to Japan standards, and for me, I liked having the kids so close to us. They couldn’t hide far away on the other side of the house. I didn’t like the lack of insulation and urge the Japan construction industry to make thicker walls and windows. The winter is too long and too cold and energy costs too much not to have insulation. Heating room-by-room, walking around cold or paying exorbitant utilities trying to heat the entire house to a comfortable temperature.
I also gained an understanding of the power of natural disasters. I’ll never forget the morning of June 18 when 15 kilometers away, a quake of 6.1 struck. One needs to experience the sounds and sensations of the earth moving to appreciate the force of nature.
It was good for us to experience Asia. Nadia and I always wanted to see what it is like here after a long time in Latin America. Commentators say that this is Asia’s century, and in some ways, early into this century, they are right. There is a hustle and bustle that you don’t feel in other parts of the world, especially in East Asia. The airports are much better and they are more advanced in many ways. My problem with is the over crowding. I missed the wide-open spaces. Traveling to Beijing, Hong Kong, Seoul, Singapore, Bangkok, Tokyo, etc. I could feel the force of humanity, too many people living too close together.
Thanks Japan for five pleasurable years. I’ll be following the country from afar and wish good fortune to my friends and colleagues.