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.

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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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?

Is that Finnish that I am seeing in Japan?!

In many countries, it is common to use foreign words or phrases in advertising, to create an interesting, quirky or trendy image for your product. Japan is no different. Over here, a Westerner can recognise familiar Western words that are used as shop/restaurant names. This is the case especially in trendy parts of the city, and the language predominantly used is of course English.

However, as a native to Finland, I’ve been over the moon to notice that several shops/restaurants in Osaka also have Finnish names! This, as silly as it might sound to a native English speaker, makes a Finn exclaim with delight. After all, Finnish is by no definition a world language spoken by the masses as a native language or taught as a popular choice as a second language. In fact, it is only spoken by about 5 million people native to Finland and is taught as a second language only in its neighbouring countries (if even there), and thus, we practically never see Finnish words used outside Finland (other than maybe in places like Rhodes or Fuengirola i.e. particularly popular destinations amongst Finnish holiday makers).

Intriguingly, I don’t think there is any obvious Finnish connection when Japanese shops choose their Finnish name. I mean, the reason why they have Finnish names is not because the owner or their spouse is Finnish or because the bulk of their customers are Finnish (given that the Finnish community in Osaka is miniscule and only a handful of Finnish tourists visit Osaka). I think these shops have Finnish names just because it is trendy to use Finnish!

Here are some names that I’ve come across in Osaka:

 

A bakery/clothes shop: Pesä (‘Den/Nest/Burrow’)

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A café that specialises in pancakes: Pöllö (‘Owl’)

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A restaurant: Keitto Ruokala (‘Soup Canteen’), It might be worth pointing out that even though the name might suggest otherwise, this restaurant didn’t serve soup, nor did it look like a canteen.

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Hairdressers: Alkaa Täältä (‘Begins from here’)

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Clothes shop: Olohuone (‘Living room’)

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Before I finish this Finnish post, I might just need to add that even though it is wonderful to see Finnish in Japan, the Japanese do not always get their use of Finnish right. Here’s an example of something on the wall of a stationery and life-style shop in Shinjuku in Tokyo. A cardinal mistake in my opinion!

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Japanese cat deterrent

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It seems to be pretty universal that people (in particular parents of young children) are not too happy about neighbourhood cats using their garden as the toilet (I’m sure most people wouldn’t be happy about the neighbourhood dogs using their garden as the toilet either). A garden covered with cat faeces which might contain Toxoplasma gondii (a parasite that causes neurological problems) is extremely incompatible with young children, who are drawn to dirt and fail to resist putting random things in their mouths and licking anything from a daffodil to a rake.

The only group of people that might not mind cats using their garden as the toilet are the cats’ owners. But paradoxically, cats tend to prefer their neighbours’ gardens to their own.

In Japan, catless people tackle this problem with PET bottles filled with water (see photo above). I’ve understood that the use of these is based on three assumptions.

1) Cats don’t like water. (I’m giggling just typing this silly argument!)

2) When a cat goes close to the bottle, they see their own reflection on the bottle, thinks it is another cat (probably a size of a tiger due to the bottle distorting their reflection) and consequently runs away. But cats are intelligent animals, they wouldn’t fall for this, would they!?

3) Maybe more convincingly, cats don’t like the prism that sunlight creates in the area surrounding the bottles.

I was going to suggest that instead of taking the drastic measure of buying a dog (or your own cat!) you, my non-Japanese catless reader, could use PET bottles instead, to make your garden less attractive to cats, but then it dawned on me that this would only work in places with lots of sunshine (e.g. the Sahara and Japan). Given that we have only about a week’s worth of sun per year in Finland (and even less in England), in these countries, the use of PET bottles would be as effective a cat deterrent as gluing a photo of a dog on your garden shed.