The Real Japan. Or is it? Part 1

I don’t know how many times I came across the phrase “the real Japan” while researching my trip/move here.  Each time it was in connection with some particular city or tourist attraction, and obviously the term itself is open to some serious debate.

I consider “the real Japan” to be the one you see when it’s not pretending.  When stores don’t have English translations of everything, when places aren’t trying to be special, and when people aren’t pretending.  Don’t get me wrong – it’s very nice to get some special treatment because you’re a (NB: white foreigner, sadly) foreigner when you’ve been undergoing culture shock and are in dire need of some after-work conversation, but…when people are truly being themselves and genuine in their responses and reactions to normal, everyday occurrences, that’s when I think to myself:  “Ah, they’re being themselves.  A real person.”

To me, that is what makes “the real Japan,” not endless lines of carefully maintained ancient and/or ancient look-alike buildings (brand new “castles” I’m lookin’ at you) with shops that hawk their wares to tourists day in/day out and have a meticulously-practiced sales pitch especially for foreigners (yeah, shopkeepers, I know what you’re up to – it amuses me, so I still smile as you work your magic, the same as I do in Canada…like that time at Forever Flawless…but I digress!), or a perfect maelstrom of museums, amusement parks and shopping malls that you are guided to by conspicuous multilingual signs and then greeted with huge, adorable cartoon logos and/or people in mascot suits.  Even in those places, it’s the little things you notice, that no one is supposed to see, that crack the façade of touristy bliss and remind you that it is only a front put on for the benefit of the yen-dispensing-tourists, and behind that front is reality.  Is what’s behind that front “the real Japan?”

I haven’t even been here a full year.  Obviously I don’t know, but I doubt anyone else can answer definitively either. I’m going to try to give you my perspective on the topic via some experiences in the next post or two.  Thanks for enduring the walls of text.

Part 1

It’s December now.  The “cold” as they call it here has settled in for Japan’s winter.  It roughly equates to my favourite season back home in Manitoba – autumn, although the cold here is damp and definitely more wintery than the temperatures suggest. (It was -1 degrees Celsius on a cold day but felt more like -10 with the wind and humidity.)

I was really looking forward to this.  The nippy air biting into my lungs with each breath, while a strong fall wind gusts through my hair…ahhhh.  I could tramp over crunchy, freshly fallen leaves forever…  Autumn is my season, baby!

Alas, ’twas not to be.  Last week I caught laryngitis again.  Just as it was setting in, while I thought it was only a mild cold, a frosty stroll in the autumn breeze pretty much did me in.  Earlier this year, I was shocked to come down with a really brutal case of laryngitis, the like of which I’d never had before.  I chalked it up to the stress of culture shock/new job/new routines plus the custom in the area of constantly burning things (wood and leaves and who knows what else mixed in) all contributing to a sore throat and weakened immune system.  I’ve changed my mind.  I’m no immunologist but I suspect there’s an entirely different strain(s) of it here in Japan than back home.  I’m gonna call it Japanese laryngitis and it, my friends, is kickin’ my butt…

Japanese Laryngitis: 2 Foreigner: 0 Please, not agaiiiiiiin aaaaaahhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!

Japanese Laryngitis: 2
Foreigner: 0
Please, not agaiiiiiiin aaaaaahhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!

Unlike the first time, this time I went to see a doctor.  My first visit to one here in Japan.  I didn’t want to go, but I could only protest “I’m getting over it” for so many days (via forced-air-swollen-larynx-wheeze-whisper between coughs) before sanity and reality suggested I compromise and go to the doctor.  I could just imagine it.  Just like back home, I’d wait 2 hours or more after checking in (if I wasn’t sent home), and then I’d wait another hour or two in the smaller waiting room.  But this time there’d be extra time trying to decipher what the staff would be trying to say to me.  All while I can hardly talk.  The horror…

But I honestly was feeling better the last two days, and my voice was (very, very) slowly coming back.  This morning I could actually talk, and so after a wonderful few hours at a tea ceremony (that was arranged months ago and I could not back out of) I was off to the doctor.

I was given the time-saving advice to go at 11:30 a.m.  “All the old people who go in the morning will be gone and no one else goes at lunch time.”  It was a surprising experience – I was in and out in 30 minutes.  Add another 10 minutes for getting the prescription filled – at a pharmacy directly ACROSS THE STREET – and I was done.  In 40 minutes.  That includes me figuring out how to answer a questionnaire at the pharmacy since it was my first time there.  Blazingly fast!  Practically light-speed!  Nice job on the clinics, Japan!

Anyway, that was only the main story, without the little details needed to really tie it into my intended theme.  Sorry for the novella.

As I waited (two minutes) in the lobby, an older woman came in.  She had a cough.  After speaking to the receptionists she was given a thermometer and came to sit beside me.  She looked suspiciously similar to one of my students, but that often happens (apparently a lot of the island’s inhabitants have the same last name…har har…) so I wasn’t sure if she recognized me as her possible-daughter/niece’s English teacher or if she was genuinely just being friendly.  I got the distinct feeling that she was just miserable, and there wasn’t anyone else there to talk to, so I got the job.  She started telling me when she got sick and what she had gotten and then I completely lost any idea of what she was talking about.  I had to interrupt the one-way conversation with an extremely awkward, non-grammatical statement something along the lines of “Yo, I just got here in March and I don’t know what you’re saying so yeah…sorry…”  Except I’m sure it sounded much ruder.  I really had no brainpower left after the tea ceremony and as you’ll see in the next story, even that was impressive considering my recent displays of Japanese ability.  Right then the receptionist called me up and handed me a thermometer.  To my relief it was an armpit thermometer, but…I’d never used one before.  I kept taking it out after about 15 seconds and trying to give it back…  Once I asked how long I had to keep the thing in my armpit, figured it out and handed it back, my co-commiserator had given up speaking to me.  She hadn’t been trying to be some extra-extroverted foreign-friend collector/English practicer, she just wanted somebody to empathize with her and I couldn’t do that.  She had been herself, all along – another sick person waiting for a doctor.  Of course there’s other possibilities – maybe she thought I was a haafu (half-Japanese) and once she realized I was a true foreigner, she ignored me out of racism.  You know what?  I don’t care if she did.  It was nice to interact with a perfect stranger being genuine.

While I was lying on a cot, I overheard two of the nurses discussing the teachers at a school (not mine, unfortunately – that would have been interesting!!!).  They were using very quiet voices but likely assumed I didn’t understand – which is fine with me.  It’s times like this, when I overhear things that I actually understand that remind me of how different the area where I live is to the cities.  It’s a glimpse of the real Japan – the realities of it.  “So-and-so sensei is so tired lately.  There are so few teachers.  It’s amazing.” They went through the list of teachers, whose classes they taught and so on.  What’s interesting is that schools here are being merged because the population of the island has dropped so dramatically – so I’d love to know why they said there are so few teachers (or indeed, what kind of teachers these were).  I wonder (and I only wonder, I have no idea!) if there are fewer willing to live here – people here, especially young people, are migrating to the cities to get higher paying, more fulfilling jobs – and they generally don’t return.  Even my pay is lower here than it would be if I lived in a city.  There is the unavoidable impression that in general, people here are poorer.  There are a lot of old, dilapidated houses that people still live in, despite having to use the old-style restrooms detached from the house (sort of like an outhouse connected by a covered walkway?), and apartments with rotting doors and walls that again, people still live in.  Things are not as convenient – the malls are far away, the train station is two islands over, and so on and so on.  A lot of people who live here seem to be either people who have been left behind or who want to get away.  (Which they’ll tell you, directly or indirectly.)  It’s easy to forget that if you only interact with people who put on a front for you, and only see the superficial, shop-window-poster side of Japan.

On to the next story, which is back in time – last night.  I was feeling better for the first time in a week and so ventured to Edion (electronics store) to get some random things.  Before I go any further, I want to just give you a bit of an idea of how I study Japanese:

My method is madness.  (There is no method - I take two different lessons from different textbooks than the ones I have, and scribble bits of Japanese onto scrap paper...)

My method is madness. (I take two different lessons from multiple textbooks different than the ones I have, and scribble bits of Japanese onto scrap paper, and use Anki SRS and other things in a completely unscheduled haphazard fashion…)  By the way, it’s all lies – no amount of language study can save you from your own stupidity.

I headed to the checkout.  All I had was a 10,000 yen bill (exciting, huh!!!) and I carefully went through what I wanted to say to ask for 1000 bills as change instead of the 5,000 I knew he’d give.  I felt confident, although I was getting pretty tired from the laryngitis beating me down.  I’m going to put this into Canadian terms so you can understand just how badly this went.  Imagine yourself being the cashier and some tourist walks in.  You figure they can’t speak English, but you’re polite so you’ll give them a chance.  You’re not racist after all.

You:  Here’s your change. $50.23.

Me:  Ummm, could I have five hundreds instead please?  (and I hand the fifty bucks back)

You: (complete with astonished look at what I just said with apparent competency) So you gave me $100.00.  Your change is $50.23.

Me:  Yes.  But five hundreds please.

You: Oh.  Five tens.  You want five tens instead.  (face changes completely with the realization that I may be able to say the words but cannot actually understand their meaning…)

The worst part is that I didn’t realize I asked for $500 bucks in change until after I walked out the door.  Plus, the words aren’t even similar.  10,000 is “man” and and 1,000 is “sen.”  Really, I’m just an idiot.

I was kind of offended at how put off he was, before I realized my mistake.  As I replayed it on my way out to the car, I thought hey, you know what?  At least he was himself.  He didn’t go into some weird, over-driven foreigner-serving persona, like I often experience at the bank/post office.  He just did his job, and he was himself the whole time, from the point when I still seemed sane to the point I uttered words only a robber would use.  “Five hundreds please.”

It’s these kinds of responses that say to me, “This is the real Japan.”  When I walk in a store and nine voices chorus “Irrashaimase!” I smile, but I know it’s a front.  Everyone knows it’s a front – it’s not a real response, it’s a door chime.  Responses to inconvenience, annoyance, and surprise – that’s when you really see who a person is, and by extension, a country – in my opinion.

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