Cross-cultural observations of women’s roles

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Some of you who used to read my blog might assume that my several month-long radio silences mean that now we are back in the UK I no longer write blogs. But, I do actually still have some blog posts on the backburner that will appear in the blog eventually, only with several month-long lead times.

You see, my intentions to write blog posts for the past year or so have been as successful as Finland’s intentions to qualify for the World Cup, the European championships or any international-level football competition (i.e. practically never!). Not that I care about football – in fact, I opt for a nap when my husband and son are watching the World Cup (even when England’s playing).

The reason for my slow blog posting is that I’ve been so incredibly busy since I moved back to England that I just don’t seem to find the time to put my thoughts on paper. In fact, I’ve been so busy with juggling family life and a full time job that I think I’ve actually started to lose my hair! And this is not a figure of speech! After every shower when I brush my wet hair, I’ve got something that looks like Donald Trump’s toupee attached to my hairbrush! I hope it is the stress (and is something that can be reversed with a slightly less hectic lifestyle) and not for instance that I’m subconsciously synchronising my hairstyle to that of my husband’s. After all, they say that married couples start to resemble each other! (By the way, if you haven’t met my husband, he has slightly less hair than Vin Diesel.)

In any case, it wasn’t my hair’s protests that made me realise that my life’s pretty hectic, but my student’s comments.

You see, we recently had one of my former students from Japan stay with us (as an au pair) for 2 1/2 months. Before she went back to Japan, me and her were having a chat about life and I light-heartedly mentioned that she might have noticed that our life’s pretty busy. She didn’t respond to my comment with a similar light-hearted approach as me. Instead, she looked at me concerned and asked if our life was always like it had been during her stay with us. I sat there for a couple of seconds stumped, trying to decode her utterance and the tone of her voice and then I realised that she thought that our lives were as enjoyable as me greeting Donald Trump’s toupee every morning.

I rushed to explain that yes, we were busy but that my husband and I were very lucky in many ways – both of us love our jobs, we have two wonderful children, who have several lovely hobbies, we have lively social lives, travel a fair amount and feel that we have been able to combine full-time work and family life successfully. And most importantly, we were busy because we chose to be busy! Working was a decision I had made and not something that was forced into.

She was not convinced. She stated that our life was certainly something that she wouldn’t want for herself. She said that she hopes that when she gets married and has children, she can become a shufu (housewife). I really hope this decision was not brought about by her 2 ½ month experience of our parents-working-fulltime-lifestyle but that she is just a typical Japanese woman whom chooses home over career.

You see, in Japan even in the twenty-first century it is difficult to be a woman and have both children and a full-time career, partly because Japanese society assumes that outside kindergarten or school hours, children need to be cared for by their parents or other family members (and not for instance by a child minder, a concept that practically doesn’t exist in Japan). So, unless grandparents are willing to help with childcare, the mum returning to full-time work would be very difficult.

This was supported by my off the cuff research while in Japan. Namely, when I asked every cohort of students that I had in Japan about their future career plans, some of the female students said that they want to be career-women, which in most cases means that they plan not to get married or to have children. But similarly to our au pair, most of my female students said that they were hoping to work until they had children, but then essentially retire in their 20s or 30s. Most of them said that that would mean marrying a relatively well-paid husband which would take the pressure off them working. That is, it seems to be that for most women, work was something that they had to do if they failed to find an ideal husband, not something that they would choose if not working was an option (I am not going to go into this here, but I’m assuming one reason for Japanese women’s indifference to work might be their experience/knowledge of the unequal treatment of women and men in many workplaces).

Unlike many British and Finnish mums who might take several years out of work when their children are little but then return to work when they feel their children no longer need their full attention, many Japanese mums stay as housewives even when their children have gone to school or even left home!

If you are a British or a Finnish parent, you might be wondering what Japanese mums do when their children are older? Well, it seems that they still devote their lives to their children in many ways. For instance, many of my university students who still lived at home told me that their mum would get up around 6am to fry salmon and cook rice for them for breakfast and make their bento boxes for lunch – and these students were 20-year-olds! It also seems that the mums do the majority of the domestic chores, or at least many of my students said that they did very little cleaning. However, even though Japanese housewives look after the home they seem to find a fair amount of time to spend in coffee shops, restaurants and onsens (hot springs) with their mum-friends (which is a huge contrast to their husbands, who typically work extremely long hours).

What about the Finnish mums? Well, they tend to go back to work after having had children. Labour Source Survey (2013) reports that about 70% of Finnish mums of children under the age of 3 either work (35-40%) or are on family leave from work (this consists of different types of maternity leave which you can take until your child turns 3 years) (25-30%). Furthermore, approx. 90% of Finnish mums with school-age children work. This is to say, the housewife role is relatively uncommon in Finland.

Furthermore, what I can’t see many Finnish mums doing is to mollycoddle their older children let alone adult children in the same way that Japanese mums do. My understanding is that most Finnish 9-10-year-olds can (and frequently do) make their own breakfast and snacks such as sandwiches, fill/empty the dishwasher, contribute to keeping their own room clean and tidy and survive home alone for several hours after school before their parents come home from work (but please correct me if I am wrong – I haven’t lived in Finland for 18 years, things might have changed!). Surprisingly, it seems that many English kids are only trusted to stay at home alone from their 12th-13th birthday which is much later than for many Japanese or Finnish children.

Unlike English kids, most of whom are taken to school by a parent until they go to secondary school (12 years of age) many Finnish children, at least outside of Helsinki, start walking/cycling to and from school independently around the age of 7-8 years. Believe it or not, but in this respect, Japanese kids are even more independent than the Finnish kids! I have seen children as young as 7 make their school journey alone on super-busy commuter trains through Osaka!

Finnish parents who want to go back to work are often able to successfully manage full-time jobs and parenting. This is partly because of the above reasons to do with children acquiring independence relatively early in life (i.e. walking/cycling to school on their own and staying at home alone until the parents come home from work) but also due to the fact that Finnish schools assume that most mums work and thus schools do not expect that mums have time to create elaborate fancy dress costumes, bake cakes for cake sales and organise other fundraising events, come into classes to help with maths/literacy or attend school trips. These extremely common tasks for British mums (largely due to the persistent underfunding of schools!) are practically absent from the Finnish parent-school relationship. English mums who want to go back to work full-time are likely to find it difficult to meet the expectations not only of their bosses and social workers (re independent school runs and leaving primary school-aged children home alone), but also of their children’s teachers (and even other mums!). It is no wonder many English families with working mums rely on help from grandparents or child minders/au pairs or work from home on a regular basis. Given that my husband or I don’t have family living nearby, we belong in the latter group and have an au pair who helps with childcare and housework. Not having an au pair would make it practically impossible for me or my husband to work full-time.

Our lives are busy (even with an au pair!) and we don’t have much time to watch TV, write blog posts, or take naps (which I would love to do if I had more time, and not just during World Cup matches!) but we seem to be able to just about fit everything in. We work full time, but spend our evenings and weekends playing Monopoly or Uno with the kids, bake cakes, flip pancakes, pan pop pop-corn, throw a baseball around in the garden and socialise with our friends, and that makes me feel like I’m just an ordinary Finnish mum who manages to do this without a detrimental effect on their children or their own wellbeing.

But could it be that my hairbrush is telling me that one should be choosing one or the other?

10 inconsistencies that confuse a Westerner in Japan

 

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Not only does the Japanese to English translations often confuse Westerners in Japan (see photo above), but also the lack of predictability in behaviour of Japanese people can be a bit perplexing. Here are some examples:

 

  1. The Japanese are ridiculously particular about not eating the peel of fruits – for example, in addition to apples and pears they also peel grapes. Yet they eat prawns with the shell on!

 

  1. During a typhoon, taxi drivers drive back home to seek shelter, but the trains run as normal.

 

  1. During a typhoon, university students and teaching staff are sent home for safety, yet support staff will have to stay at work (the same goes for 7-Eleven staff – practically nothing seems to be a good enough reason for convenience store staff not to work their shifts!)

 

  1. Japanese society is extremely health and safety conscious, there are signs everywhere alerting people to potential dangers (like sliding train doors trapping children’s fingers or closing elevator doors catching people’s rucksacks) yet Japanese people and the governing bodies are happy for people to eat (a) Fugu, i.e. puffer fish, whose body contains one of the most lethal substances known to man and (b) mochi (sticky rise dough) which is not poisonous but extremely sticky resulting in a large number of people annually getting into some sticky situations with mochi sticking to their airways (sometimes so much so that the person suffocates).

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  1. Many Japanese people are very careful and particular about money and aspire to buy their own flat (condominium) even though they know that they will only lose money on the flat. The reason for the low chance of making money with property in Japan is that frequent earthquakes damage the structure of buildings, building regulations for earthquakes are frequently being updated and Japanese society generally prefers new rather than old. Thus, if you are careful about spending money, why not just live in rented accommodation?

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  1. In many families, the wife is the head of the household and for example holds the purse strings (including control of their husband’s pay cheque), yet it’s not unheard of that they give their husband an allowance for the upkeep of his lover.

 

  1. Japanese people rarely cry in highly emotional situations publicly, yet important politicians and CEOs bellow like 4-year-olds on prime time TV when they’ve made a mistake.

 

  1. People are considerate and wear a surgical masks when ill so that they won’t spread their germs to their friends, colleagues or co-commuters, yet many Japanese women do not wash their hands after using the toilet (maybe men don’t either, but I haven’t had the opportunity to observe this behaviour in men’s toilets).

 

  1. Many Japanese students who want to go to a good university study extremely hard during their (Junior) High school (i.e. secondary school and sixth form). However, many of them stop studying when they go to university, as it is not the grade or the degree so much, but the status of your university that will guarantee your attractiveness to the job market.

 

  1. This is not what an individual would find confusing, but what British train operators and government’s Department for Transport are likely to find confusing: The Japanese have one of the best functioning train systems in the world with their flagship ‘bullet trains’ and practically flawless local trains operations, yet they are now building an even better train system, Maglev, and are investing a lot of money in it, e.g. one stretch from Tokyo to Nagoya (approx. 290km) will cost £67 billion. As a comparison, here’s the latest on South-East England’s trains from today’s BBC news.

 

I’m sure there is a lap full of other confusing inconsistencies that I’ve haven’t noticed (or have noticed but inconsistently took note of!), so if you have noticed any, feel free to share those in the comments.

11 things I don’t miss about Japan

 

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In my last blog post I listed some not so obvious things that I miss having returned back to England after 3 years of life in Japan. In this blog post I will list some things that I don’t miss – or in some cases, I’m actually quite happy are no longer part of my everyday life.

Instead of dwelling on some relatively well-known (negative) qualities of Japan many of which I have written previously (such as earthquakes, unbearable heat, and xenophobia) below I will list some less obvious things.

(1) Dentists

I don’t have a problem with dentists overall. For example, if I had to choose between 30 minutes in a kids’ crowded and noisy indoor play area or a quiet 30 mins in a dentist’s chair I’d probably choose the latter (which, since parenthood, sadly, I’ve started to perceive as ‘me-time’!).

But the thing that I don’t like about dentists in Japan is that there is no personal space much like kids’ indoor playgrounds where you are forced to experience the next person (and their kids screaming and crying) and witness blood gushing out of their mouth when they’ve lost a tooth. You see, in Japan, dentist appointments do not take place in a private room. Instead, there are several dentists, dental nurses, dental hygienist and orthodontist providing service to their patients in one big room. Thus you might be having your cavity filled about 1.5 metres from the next person who’s having a tooth pulled out. Talk about jaw-dropping.

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(2) Height of surfaces

What I found problematic in Japan was the difference in physical characteristics between relatively average sized European persons (me and my husband) and average Japanese persons (female: 158cm, male: 171cm, link). This was evident for example in the vertical positioning of bathroom sinks and from airline seat heights (see photos below). Being back in England has given me a chance to recover from the hunchback I started to develop in Japan.

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(3) Shopping for clothes

Related to the above, the fact that an average Japanese woman is 158cm tall and weighs, even at the age of 40, on average about 52kg, it wasn’t fun for shopping for clothes in Japan, especially in select shops (little boutiques with trendy clothes). And even though they did have H&M and Zara and other international shops there, the measurements they had for their Asian market were not ideal for a 169cm Godzilla like me. They would have been more appropriate for Godzuki.

 

(4) Shopping for food

This was problematic for me for several reasons

  • the choice of foods in supermarkets was very different to Europe – we often didn’t know what we were buying, and we couldn’t find some of our favourites like hummus, halloumi, sugar-free squash, cider or lean meat.

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  • We didn’t know which supermarkets to use to avoid becoming social outcasts. I don’t care as much about the presentation/flawless appearance of groceries as an average Japanese person and was happy to shop at least for some of our everyday groceries in Tamade. But it seemed to be the case that Tamade (which to me felt like a pretty average supermarket) was perceived to be too poor quality (maybe comparable to something like Lidl in Europe). In fact one of my Korean friends disclosed to my Japanese friends that I had bought some of the ingredients in Tamade for a party (yes, fresh basil which we weren’t able to find in any other shops in the neighbourhood) and this seemed to be acceptable only because I had bought some of the other ingredients in Foodium and Daimaru (maybe comparable to Waitrose and Harrods (respectively) in England or Stockmann’s food court in Finland).
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Typical interior of a Tamade supermarket

 

(5) Confusing terminology

In England the street level of a building is usually referred to as the ‘ground floor’ and the first floor above the ground level is referred to as ‘first floor’. When I moved to Japan I realised that they have adopted the American system where the street level (i.e. British ground floor) is referred to as first floor and the British first floor is referred to as the second floor – it is pretty confusing! I mean, figuring out these cultural differences in reference to building floors is not that difficult right – but when you interact with Brits and Americans and Japanese people some of whom have been educated in England, and some in America, all of whom potentially are using their own system or accommodating to their interlocutor you can imagine the confusions that arise, and numerous times there was miscommunication when I am standing on the British 1st floor of a building and my friend is waiting for me on the Japanese 1st floor of the same building or vice versa.

(6) Traffic lights

As with dentists, I don’t have a problem with traffic lights per se, but maybe I am a little impatient for Japanese traffic lights. The amount of time one needs to stand and wait for the red light to turn green is often much (MUCH!) longer than in places like England or Finland. I’m not quite as pedantic as my husband might think given that I never timed this but I’m guessing the change of lights in Japan could take a minute or even two.

(7) Washing machines

It seems to be the case that (most) Japanese washing machines wash clothes with cold water. This is of course an environmentally-friendly way to wash one’s clothes (albeit I’m not sure if this is the core reason for the cold washes…), but (a) when you have two young children whose clothes after a bowl of spaghetti Bolognese look like they are auditioning for Nightmare on Elm Street and (b) when your husband runs marathons even in the ridiculously hot and humid summer of Osaka, you kind of start missing machines that put some muscle into stain and odour removal.

(8) Eco-unfriendliness

Having said above that washing machines in Japan usually use cold water only, in many other ways, Japanese appliances and overall lifestyle can be environmentally rather unfriendly. For example, dishwashers are usually tiny! So small that crockery, cutlery and glasses used in a single meal in our 4 strong family filled the dishwasher up. Running a 2h cycle for those dishes kind of felt like a huge waste and we often just washed everything by hand. I’ve mentioned over-packing in my previous blog post, but having a single egg, a single mushroom or a single strawberry packed in a plastic box I’m happy to be back in Brighton where if not for one’s own initiative, then by peer pressure, you try to think about the wellbeing of this planet and future generations.

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Individually packed mushrooms

 

(9) Oven-less kitchen

A kitchen with no oven limits my life and eating habits a lot. The fact that Japanese homes rarely have an oven means that baking, pasta bakes or even the simple (but oh so delicious) curly fries were off the menu for three years.

(10) Raw eggs

Raw eggs are consumed in Japan in bucket-loads. I don’t miss going to a restaurant for a quick bowl of rice, to find that there is a cold raw egg eyeballing me on top of my dish (known as tamago kake gohan). Or us going to a canteen-y type place for lunch one time and assuming the egg we bought for our daughter from a buffet type selection was boiled… only to realize it was a raw as soon as my husband had cracked it open (with some force) on our daughter’s plate. Well, we learned our lesson, never again did we hold the expectation that whole eggs in a shell were boiled.

(11) Mysterious eateries

Eating out in Japan can be a bit risky for people who can’t read Japanese. The reason being that many restaurants/izakayas/bars (a) have no windows or if there are windows, they have been obscured and/or (b) the eatery is not on the ground floor. One risk I’m referring to here is that maybe you were looking for a margarita pizza but ended up with chicken ovaries. More worryingly, if you can’t read Japanese or have a quick look through the window, you don’t know whether an eatery is a pizzeria, members only club or a strip joint. I mean, it might take some courage to take the lift to the 7th floor to find that you’ve walked into a hostess club. We got better over the years and often found a nice restaurant at the end of a nerve-wracking entrance to an izakaya, but I am happy to be back in the UK where you can usually look through the restaurant window to see whether the restaurant, its food and clientele looks like our cup of tea and whether there is hostess or a stripper mingling with punters. That said, if you fancy rolling the dice and see what you end up with by all means just walk in and see what you get.

 

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Having said all the above, by just writing this post I’ve realised that I actually really miss Japan and will probably have to book a holiday there soon. It is fair to say that the positives outweigh the negatives by some margin in Japan.

9 not so obvious things I miss about Japan

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After having lived in Osaka for nearly three years, last January (2017) I moved back to the UK. I’ve been so busy with my new job in England that it hadn’t really hit me that my time in Japan was over – in my mind, I somehow assumed that I was again in England only temporarily (as I had been back to England a number of times during the last three years for short periods of time). But I am finally starting to realize that I will now only go to Japan on holiday and that what I got used to in Japan is no longer my everyday life.

Like most expats, I miss things from place(s) where I have previously lived. The things that I miss from Japan is long, and contains some obvious things, like my friends and my students, Japanese hotprings, amazingly well functioning public transport, and great food, but also some things that may not be so obvious. Here’s the list of those non-obvious things:

 

1. The endearing naivety, quirkiness or downright craziness of many people

Japanese people (or maybe just people in Osaka) are really quirky. It’s worth pointing out that I now live in Brighton, a city on the south coast of England known for its non-orthodox ideas and non-judgemental, tolerant approach to life, but even by Brightonian standards Osaka people’s behaviour is sometimes a little unusual (in an interesting and endearing way). See for example a photo below in which people are taking a photo at Osaka station of a Hankyu train that has a cartoon character on it.

 

This kind of behaviour is completely normal. No-one in Osaka would look twice at an adult having their photo taken with a tourist attraction mascot, a promotional Moomin character or a cute poster of a toy character – activities which I would think are just for children.

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In addition, the man in the video below dancing at an arcade like no-one’s watching is just another arcade in Osaka (note that alcohol might have a part to play in Japanese people letting their hair down in this way, but still, this is nothing unusual).

 

 

 

2. Japanese ‘Poundland’

Seria is a shop where everything costs 100 Yen (£0.70 or €0.70) but it’s not like Poundland in England (where everything costs £1). Seria is much better quality! For example, many of the sushi dishes or onigiri (rice ball) containers are made in Japan! If ever in Japan, go and stock up on all Japanese products on the cheap! You might even be able to palm off some of their Japanese crockery on your friends (or mother-in-laws) as top-class Japanese products.

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3. Fast-food restaurants

Inexpensive good quality ‘fast-food’ restaurants are everywhere in Japan. I’m not talking about McDonalds or even the Japanese version of a fast-food burger place: Mos Burger. Instead, I’m talking about proper Asian fast-food places. These are ideal for busy working mums (and dads) to take their kids for dinner when they don’t have time to cook – or if they just want some absolutely delicious dishes so cheaply that it is just not worth going through the hassle of cooking. A tray of Chinese dishes or a bowl of udon (noodles) and 6 pieces of karaage (fried chicken) will set you back about 1000 JPY (€7.50, £6.80). In many places like these, be prepared to place the order at a vending machine either outside or immediately inside the front doors of the restaurant. You just hand the ticket you get to the chef behind the counter, sit down and wait for your tray to arrive.

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A bowl of noodles, fried chicken and salad, prawns in a chilli sauce, a selection of dumplings and a Chinese jelly+fruit dessert all for approx. 1000 JPY (7.50 EUR)

 

4. Konbini – corner shops

7-Eleven, Family Mart and other small convenience stores are everywhere in Japan and they are amazing! In addition to the obvious snacks and things that you’d get from corner shops, konbinis in Japan are a life saviour in more than one way. For example:

If you splash some udon or ramen on you shirt and tie during lunch, or have a scary business meeting, you can just go to a konbini and get a new shirt and tie or clean underwear if needed.

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If you forgot to check the weather forecast and to take your umbrella with you in the morning to work, you can just pop in the nearest konbini on your way home and you don’t have to get singled out in the crowd as the only disorganised person walking in the rain without an umbrella.

Or if you cannot be bothered to cook and want an even less expensive dinner than what the fast-food restaurants have got to offer (see above), you can get fantastic foods in konbini. They have good quality ready-made dishes of noodles, rice and pasta, salads, sushi, dumplings, sandwiches, onigiri, etc.

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Furthermore, they have microwaves in which the staff or you can heat your dishes up, and kettles where you get hot water for your pot noodles.

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And many of them have confortable and clean areas to eat you food – or even rather spectacular areas like the konbini next to the pharmacy on the 16th floor of the Harukas building in Osaka. The view was pretty impressive when we on a regular basis had our konbini coffee, noodle salad and strawberry and cream sandwiches while waiting for our daughter’s insulin prescription to be ready for collection. So, don’t be put off by the brand 7-Eleven based on what your image of it might be in England or the States. In Japan these types of shops are gold dust!

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Harukas

 

It might also be worth mentioning that a common way to pay your electricity/gas bills is to take the bill to a konbini and pay for it there – not quite as easy as internet banking or direct debit, but given that you are likely to go to a konbini pretty much daily anyway (if not for clean underwear or umbrellas, then for some food/drink), it’s not really that much hassle to pay your bills while you are there.

 

5. Vending machines

On the one hand, you might find it insane that there appears to be a vending machine every 10 metres, but when the weather is really hot, it is great that you can get an ice-cold drink anywhere and when it’s cold, you can defrost your fingers on a nice hot can of coffee every 10 meters. Also, my husband was particularly taken with being able to buy one-cup sake from a vending machine! (Link to my previous post on vending machines here).

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6. Over-enthusiastic izakaya/restaurant staff

When you go to small yakitori places or izakayas (Japanese pubs), the staff will often greet you with synchronised loud shouts of ‘welcome’ (irrasshaimase!) and when you order drinks the cheering can continue (especially if your husband orders a bottle of wine AND two glasses of sake for the two of you!). The staff are also often keen to have a chat with you and hear your view of Japan (if you are a foreigner). When you leave and are walking away from the restaurant the staff usually follow you outside expressing their gratitude, bowing and sometimes even holding a flag saying ‘Thank you. Please come again’. Even though pub staff in England is often friendly and chatty, the extreme enthusiasm of Japanese pub staff in my opinion trumps this in entertainment value.

Erm, in the name of honesty, you do occasionally find slightly less enthusiastic bar staff even in Japan (see picture below).

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7. Wonderful mix of old and new

Japan has a lot of history and people quite like to do things as they have always been done. For example, the below picture shows a restaurant cashier using an abacus to calculate the total of one’s bill.

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But at the same time Japan has some pretty futuristic ideas, for example robots standing in for shop assistants

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or girlfriends for busy or shy Japanese men (link).

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8. High heels

In Japan most women wear high heels at work, university or when out and about. I accommodated, and in the three years that I lived in Japan went from trainer/boot wearing high heel hater to someone who chose to wear high heels out of choice when on a date night with my husband. As a result, the balls of my feet are now made of steel and I’ve come to appreciate the elongating effect high heels do to a middle age lady’s stocky calves. Given that back home in Brighton only (a) Love Island wannabes, and (b) Brighton gentlemen wear high heels, I feel I cannot elongate my stocky calves any longer.

 

9. The adventure

I miss going to a pub or a restaurant and not being to able to understand what is written on the menu, and so having to ask the waiter to read out the menu so that I could understand what it roughly says. And using the term: What would you recommend? -A lot.

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Our favourite sake bar menu

 

I also miss the general feeling of adventure when living in a new country whose culture and language are relatively unfamiliar to you (even after having lived there for 3 years!).

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An example of a Japanese (or maybe Chinese!?) tradition whose function and symbolism are still unknown to me.

 

Are there any expats out there reading this blog post? What non-obvious things do you miss from places you’ve lived?