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From Shima to Shima, Part II

Japan is Comfortable

There’s no denying the Japanese have a "work hard, play hard" mentality. As many foreigners reject the former and focus their efforts on putting in whatever hours at the office are necessary to enjoy the rest of life, Japan truly can be a land of milk and honey: things to relax you (onsen, shiatsu), things of convenience (vending machines every 10 meters, transportation that would sooner derail than be late), things to entertain (karaoke, nightlife, 日本酒).

If you so choose, there is absolutely nothing preventing you from having the same lifestyle or schedule as you would back home – going to the gym, catching a movie (in English, of course), enjoying a nice dinner out, hanging with friends on the weekends…

Japan, despite whatever backwards connotation one may have associated with it, is a modern country. You are not living in a poor part of the world (2nd largest economy, need I remind you?). The water is drinkable, the country clean, the people beyond friendly.

"Japan… with its social patterns designed to cocoon everyone and everything from harsh reality, is a much more comfortable country to live in. Well-established rhythms and politenesses shield you from most unpleasantness. Japan can be a kind of ‘lotus land’, where one floats blissfully away on the placid surface of things… it has become the land of social stasis, and the foreigners drawn to Japan tend to be those who find comfort in this."

Lost Japan, Alex Kerr

Kerr goes on to discuss the mentality instilled from almost birth; bad things simply do not happen:

1. The economy, despite the fact it’s in debt for trillions of Yen, doesn’t collapse mostly because people refuse to believe it can.

2. From my observations – violent crime doesn’t happen in Japan, because the Japanese are "more civilized" than the dangerous outside world. When murders are reported, the media tries their best to make the issue about foreigners (ex. "Chinese kills family in Fukuoka". When a Japanese is undeniably involved, they go so far as to trace his heritage, to see if he has Chinese or Korean roots. The message sent to the public and the blossoming youth is clear: civilized Japanese do not commit crimes, it is the fault of blood-thirsty foreigners.

3. Kerr’s references 2001: A Space Odyssey to describe the role the media and aisatsu (announcements) play in modern Japan. Loudspeakers, with the exception of those blaring messages from political candidates, are the voice of Hal, telling you what to do, where to go, why you shouldn’t worry… "everything is alright… you’re in Japan!":

"Exits are on the left side of the train."

"Take care not to fall into the volcano." Great advice!

"Stand up, sit down, stretch to the left!"

If you don’t know how to enjoy the serenity of some of the few decent temples left in Kyoto, don’t worry – recorded messages continually broadcast a history of the place.

The media is a further extension of this. Unlike in China, where undesirable news is simply removed or blocked, Japan warps facts to fit its needs. Just try watching one of those segments where they interview people on the street, or go undercover into a nightlife district to discover the truth regarding underage prostitutes… I bet over 80% of Japanese TV is scripted.

It was precisely for these reasons that I chose to leave after only two years. Although I was certainly comfortable, I was also falling into a routine not befitting a traveler – working just to fill my bank account, eating the same food (not all sushi), not trying to stretch my language skills…

More than that, I had the feeling both more and less unique as a stranger in a strange land. Japan in particular is notorious for being perfectly amenable to foreigners as guests, but when they choose to make Asia their home, an alarm sounds

But more to the point, I stood out as the foreign guest, and as a result, reaped benefits far too numerous to mention:

– Attention, stares on a daily basis

– Being paid an absurd amount for a job I was qualified to do from birth

– More appeal to the opposite sex

– Genuine interest from genuinely interesting Japanese

I was a celebrity. At least… my face and white skin made me such. My soul, my personality… it just wasn’t required. Imagine a computer singing Phantom of the Opera; it may be able to create the sounds mathetically correct note for note, but the soul and feeling are lacking. That’s what upset me, this sense of being diluted; while a part of me appreciated the attention, another knew it had nothing to do with me especially: I would have been treated the same way had I been a dimwitted foul, an arrogant prick… attitude and intelligence play no part in the typical Japanese perception of a foreigner.

Which brings me to my second point…