I am coming to the end of a five year stint working in Japan. It took me over a year to get used to Japan, I spent most of my time struggling and hating to do so. After all I’ve travelled everywhere, and lived and worked in six different countries. I thought culture shock and I had parted company years ago, but Japan is not another country, it’s another planet. You enter a world where the five day working week, the week-end, a way of life shaped by Christian ideas, none of it exists. Theirs is a Shinto Buddhist way of life. The population of 125 million means that housing is sub-standard and extremely cramped by our standards, for space is always at a premium. There are few easily accessible quiet places to get away from it all, and the public parks and gardens are always crowded. Social customs are quite different and it is hard to remember little things like it isn’t polite to blow your nose, or hug, kiss, or hold hands in public. This takes a great deal of mental adjustment, a conscious effort to look for what is new, interesting and different every day so that you are not swamped with a longing for home.
My other major problem was being female. Japanese society is male dominated and women are not treated with equality. If you don’t like men who talk over you or to the man next to you when you’ve asked the question, and I don’t, then Japan is a hard place to be. And Japanese men watch American films and think that the way women behave in these films is the way you will behave. Western women = instant sex! The smaller language schools are purposefully employing young blonde females because Japanese men have sexual fantasies about blondes. It can be difficult to handle the Japanese male ego in these situations.
The Japanese are a fascinating people, a curious mix of humility and pride. There is a strong streak of xenophobia in their psyche. If you are not Japanese you are inferior, an attitude which takes some getting used to, but it explains why a few Japanese will happily rip you off. You will also meet people who come up to you and demand to know why the allies dropped the atom bomb at Hiroshima, on poor defenceless Japan, who had done nothing. History, as taught in Japan, has interesting holes and gaps. Most Japanese have no idea of the horrors of the Pacific war as perpetrated by the Japanese Imperial army. The Japanese school history texts cover WWII in one very brief paragraph.
Japan is also expensive, the cost of living is high. Transport - bus, train and plane- throughout the country is good, super clean, efficient and reliable, but very expensive. So is owning and driving a car, I had a company vehicle and did manage to do some local travel, but wasn’t able to see as much of the country as I’d hoped. Food prices are astronomical. One water melon costs $20US, one peach $10US, meat starts at $20 US a kilo. Fish and shellfish are cheaper, but not much. The North Americans I met found clothes more expensive than at home. Australasians,like me, find quality clothes very cheap. Mind you, you have to have the slim and slight Japanese body build to wear them. An extra large in women’s sizes is a size 12-14.
Yet here I am, reluctantly packing my boxes to go home, and feeling extraordinarily sad.