Scooter vs Japan

Misconceptions and Misunderstandings | June 15, 2015

As we draw closer and closer to departure, more and more incoming JETs are asking more and questions about this or that, and I find myself constantly having to make unpopular comments in response to some of these. This stems from my history with Japan and my advanced age. I’ve traveled, lived, and studied in Japan before and know how to get by. And I’ve lived on my own before and have more life experience than, say, someone who just graduated. That’s not to say that some of these incoming JETs are stupid or immature (they wouldn’t have been accepted if they were). Rather, they lack the same kind of direct experience that I and other JETs already have, and are making otherwise good and reasonable decisions based on their culture.

I’m not writing this to start anything, nor am I trying to get on a soapbox or pretend I’m better than anyone else. The whole point of this blog is to share what I know for others who are or wish to follow this sort of path. It’s to share the best knowledge that I can with other travelers and expats so that they can have an easier time transitioning to Japanese life.

We don’t serve your kind here. Your credit cards. They’ll have to wait outside

A trend lately has been about money. How much should we bring? What credit cards work? What about this special gift card thing? Traveler’s cheques? Ok. No one has asked about traveler’s cheques, but you get the idea.

I live in Canada, and the vast majority of JETs are from the US. Here in North America, forms of payment like debit and credit are so comically past the norm that I’m surprised kids nowadays still know what a coin is. And those cards are increasingly becoming technological, with their chips and new online security codes and what not. Add to this the increasing gift card culture we may or many not be in, and the increasing presence of non-major credit cards and specialty cards.

Here’s the problem though. These all work great in our Amerocentric universe, but they don’t work in other countries. The single biggest mistake I see JETs talking about, and it is a mistake I saw exchange students talking about several years ago, and travelers talking about over a decade ago is this:

Japan is a cash society.

None of this stuff is going to work. Literally none of it. I was blessed to be able to use my Canadian bank cards at JP Post locations, as they actually have ATMs, but everything else is a coin flip at best or a non starter at worst. When I was at Gaidai, the school helped us set up bank accounts, and many students started panicking because our bank cards didn’t even have a magnetic strip on them.

If you won’t listen to me, please listen to the pig.

Now, I will be bringing my Canadian credit card with me because I’m a responsible adult and I’ve had one for years., but that has more to do with needing a lifeline back into Canada than needing a source of fund in Japan. I’m taking a pessimistic approach to this; I have various sources of funds available, but I expect to not have access to one of them. I will not be relying on my credit card or foreign accounts because access to them is not reliable. Japan is a cash society, and I will be bringing cash with me. Everything else is just planning.

Gimme your wallet and no one gets hurt.

“But wait!” I hear you cry. “We’re being told to bring 250 000 yen with us to cover our first month. Every fibre in my body screams at how unsafe that is.” Again, this is a perfectly reasonable statement… in America or Canada. I remember when I came back from Japan the second time, and I went downtown to withdrawal some money from my bank account. Now, I’m perfectly comfortable in the downtown of my now estranged home. I spent a lot of time there, and nothing really bothers me too much there. But it was night time, and the rational human being in me noted that I should be aware of my surroundings and be cautious about this transaction. And after I withdrew the $40 I went there to get, I started laughing and how ridiculous I was being. Literally weeks before, I was running around with tens of thousands of yen (hundreds of dollars) in my pocket and not thinking a thing about it. heck, I was even ridiculing other students for being overtly cautious, even after almost a year in the country. And here I was, putting $40 in my wallet, concerned that someone was going to stab me, take it, and then harvest a kidney while they were in there.

The point is, carrying large amounts of money in Canada is reasonably uncommon, but that is another Amerocentric view that people are projecting on Japan. Japan is a very safe country by western standards, and while I’m sure people do get robbed by two men (look it up, you won’t regret it), it’s far less common than in a western country.

Yep. This is about the funniest video I’ve ever seen.

Everyone else is going to carrying bags of yen with dollar signs on them, and it would be unreasonable to do otherwise. I remember reading a comment somewhere, saying that while you can buy currency after you land or do whatever else, that is going to hold up your entire landing party and probably get you stabbed out of frustration.

Now, if you’re concerned about carrying THAT much cash on you, because it is a lot, there are a number of options. The hotel we are staying at for orientation will have a safe you can use, possibly even one inside the room. You can also split your cash up across your luggage and only carry with you what you need. We used to do this in Boy Scouts when we went on big camping trips where we’d be traveling as well. Say you have $100 and the camp was 5 days long. You would set aside $20 a day in separate envelopes, and then maybe bring a little extra as an emergency fund. Just Globetrotter that idea up a bit and throw a few zeros on the end for dollar-to-yen exchange, and you have yourself a play. Obviously splinting your money up by day might be a little nonsense, but we’re only going to need maybe a 20 000 yen for Tokyo and immediate landing.

So leave the rest with your luggage in a safe place, but don’t go to the trouble of hiding money on yourself, because you don’t know when and if you’ll be able to access it.

Next topic.

I think he said the princess is in another castle

With such a large group of varied background, it’s not surprising that many JETs will be entering Japan with little to no language skills. Although I did minor in Japanese and can also use Japanese Sign Language, I know that this background isn’t the norm (especially shuwa/sign language). So it’s perfectly fine to not be able to speak a word of Japanese, save for your mad skills at singing Domo Arigato Mr Roboto at karaoke, so long as you make an effort to correct that (I met some teachers that didn’t, and it’s just… well, they didn’t enjoy their time as much as they could have). But how on earth do you start?

It’s… uh… pretty accurate for Japanese too.

Well, there’s no easy answer. But I guess I’ll start with reading, or more accurately, hiragana. For those not up on their linguistics, hiragana is the “main” writing system for Japanese. It was developed as an alternative to kanji (Chinese characters) in order to address issues of reading and pronunciation. So you’d think that this would be a good starting point, right? *throws a piece of chalk at his reader* Wrong! Here’s the problem. Hiragana isn’t the main writing system for Japanese; kanji is. You are not going to find any amount of hiragana sufficient to form a word. This is the first trap of Japanese. Throughout school, I always talked to this anime and video game fans who boasted mastery of hiragana, and I always laughed. The short amount of time needed to learn it notwithstanding, I always laughed because they didn’t actually know anything and wouldn’t be able to read a word.

To be fair, this is a problem that goes all the way to the highest ivory tower. Japanese is always taught in schools using this divorced “hiragana first” policy, which basically makes Japanese three times harder to learn. In a discussion with another JET and linguist, he or she (I can’t remember, sorry), paraphrased what I was trying to say about learning kanji right now along with the rest of Japanese. They paraphrased beautifully that you cannot divorce kanji from Japanese and that you have to learn it as a single language instead of learning bits and pieces at a time. Basically, whole language learning. And I could not agree more. Now, of course, the problem with this approach is the mile high wall of entry you face. It’s so hard to wrap you mind around such a foreign language if you’ve only ever known a languages like English, German, French, or Italian. And it gets no easier with it’s three writing styles. (yeah. There’s another one. Stay tuned.)

“So where should I start?” You ask? After you practice some phonology (the sounds of the language), start looking at different words in a dictionary. Basically, take a phrasebook approach to it for now. Grab a bunch of your basic works, like your pleases and thank yous, man, woman, water, exit… stuff like that. and Gaijin Smash the shit out of this poor language. Shame those ancestors and make the poor people who have the misfortune of hearing your shameful words weep in despair. Your Japanese is going to SUCK, but that’s ok, because once the blood clears of your listener’s ears, they will actually appreciate that you are trying, and you will appreciate that you are not an linguistic isolate. Learn how to recognize and and distinguish the kanji in those words and how to say them (please, for the love of GOD. learn the characters for man and woman). Know those characters back and forth so that when you see them, you will actually know what’s happening.

Step two is to learn katakana, the sorta not really maybe really third written form a Japanese. You can do this in any order really, but this is super Godzilla sparkle maid cafe sushi important. Why is this so important? Well, that’s complicated. While most people think that katakana is used for foreign words (like your name, learn that by the way), it’s also used as italics, bold, underline, brand names, font choice, and for phonology. That’s right. Katakana is secretly used for everything. I hate you, Japan. And it gets worse/better. See, I remember seeing more katakana than hiragana, even going so far as seeing menus and some signs written in katakana. The weird part is that it was native Japanese words written in katakana, which is quite the mind screw. But what this meant is that I could pretend I knew Japanese and read out my order, instead of just pointing to the menu like the dirty ape I am.

Hopefully, that should be enough to get you through your first few weeks in Japan until you get your first Japanese lesson from CLAIR. But more importantly, this should give you a different and more independent approach to Japanese, something that I find myself struggling against years of pedagogy to work on.

Tokyo Shock!

This is something I’m very curious and a little concerned with. Let me explain. When people in… everywhere… think about Japan, they think about this neon Japan, with a never stop night life, flying cars, and a country resting on the bleeding edge of modern culture. What they don’t see are the rice fields, 1950’s construction, lack of street lights, and what I can only describe as this shitty Star Wars lived-in kind of look that is actually far more common than the Tokyo night live. Basically, it’s culture shock, only in a different form. What concerns me is that many JETs will be entering this Neon Tokyo, confirming what they believe Japan to be, only to have this soul crushing let down when they get to their home and see it as a relative crap hole. Don’t get me wrong. I find real Japan to be quite charming. Japan is a very beautiful country and it is wonderful to see something that is basically older than the 1960’s Amero-Canadian architecture. But I fear that a lot of JETs might get hit with so much culture shock after being in Tokyo that it could really foul them on the experience.

Not sure if this helps by point, but here it is.

Neon lights aside, many of us are going to be place in small towns with little to no amenities. I understand Kamikawa-cho has two restaurants, a far cry from the two restaurants within arms reach in the much larger Hirakata-shi I lived in before. When at Gaidai, there were two distinct Indian restaurants across from the university, with ramen shops, bars, and other eateries close by. At the station, I could choose from a variety of okonomiyaki locations, non-western Chinese, Japanese curry, more ramen, and an uncountable number of other places to eat. That’s not gonna happen this time for me. There won’t be a MakuDon or KFC where I live. I probably won’t be able to run to 7-11 in the middle of the night like I could in Hirakata-shi or will be able to do in Tokyo. There may not be an electronics store where I live. All of this and more is what every JET is going to have to face, and it’s only going to get worse and harder after we are spoiled in Tokyo.

We are all going to have to work with the hand we are dealt and not expect everywhere to be like Tokyo. After the buzz of neon and the lively night life of post-departure orientation, maybe of us will have to settle with the buzz of insects and the tepid life of rural living. As in Zen practice, I remind my colleagues to live in the moment and appreciate what is right there and then, without dwelling on the past or on the practices of other places or cultures.

Th-th-th-that’s all folks

I think that’s it for today. I guess the take away here is to listen to your elders and to act within the confines of the culture you are visiting. When you leave America, Canada, Holland, Latvia, or wherever you are coming from, you will need to leave many of those idea behind, lest you face misery, regret, or even disaster upon landing.

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Posted in JET, Living

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About author

Scooter is an ESL teacher and Japanese anthropologist. He hopes to document his thoughts of living in Japan, continued cultural studies, and to provide advice for others looking to hop the pond.

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