It is now perfectly ordinary – almost part of the routine – for people to start up weblogs the minute they visit or move to a new place. One of the not un-nifty things about a WordPress blog is the ability to go Tag Surfing – entering a tag (“Japan”, say) and checking the daily batch of WordPress blog entries which match that theme. I’ve been doing it myself for the past few weeks, and I’m currently following the progress of four or five newbies taking their first tottering steps (of many, I assure you) in old Nippon. I’ve lived here on and off since 1989, so you might wonder why I bother.
Well, for one thing, it’s been an amazing reality check. Many of the first-glance images and experiences which impress the new Japan bloggers are much the same ones that impressed me – eating tofu (laboriously, if at all) with chopsticks, soft drink/beer/cigarette/condom machines nearly everywhere, the middle-aged man’s constitutional right to piss wherever he pleases (I’m looking forward to that one), the Cult of the Cute (or, Plush Can Do No Wrong), the stifling heat of apartments in summer (wait ’til winter, kids!), tatami, squat toilets, pachinko, the tragi-comic overwrapping of merchandise, deafening loudspeakers on trucks preaching the Glory of the Emperor or selling noodles, the precisely punctual yet remarkably inconvenient train system, painstaking courtesy and breathtaking rudeness (often side by side), the various glories and horrors of Japanese architecture (more often than not side by side), and of course the revelation which comes from getting off a plane and instantly being rendered functionally illiterate. Those first impressions (with the exception of the bloody loudspeakers, more perplexing than negative) haven’t changed, and I think that’s great : traveling to another country should not be like a series of Holiday Inns with identical rooms and services or what’s the point of getting on a plane? – I know : paying off your student loans – that part hasn’t changed either. It challenges your assumptions about the world and your own country (after all I’m from Canada, where train punctuality is rated in hours, not minutes, and most people drive cars anyway).
On the other hand, reading the newcomers’ blogs has shown me, despite the admittedly superficial first impressions listed above, how much the experience has changed – how much the world has changed since I arrived at Itami Airport (via Tokyo/ Chicago/ Toronto/ Halifax) with $35 Canadian in my pocket, my university diploma rolled up in a tube, and no job. They’ve all come here with a job, hired from home – many straight from college. They’ve got a time-limit – most don’t sound like they plan to stay more than a year, and the turnover at my school shows that many of them stay less that that. They’ve got a company to meet them at the airport, give them an apartment (quality varies) and a bank account. Within the week, they’ve got a cell phone (or keitai – great word), and as these blogs (and this one) attest, are never really out of touch with the folks back home, so never have to make that mental break with the outside world which used to be par for the course.
Is that a bad thing? My first feeling is yes: I taught at an English Immersion course in Halifax before coming here (and took a French Immersion course in high school), and it works. You really pick up the culture in the subtleties of the language if you have no other choice but to speak it and live it, and 15 years ago there wasn’t much choice. But let’s be honest – does everyone come here for that, or more to the point, did I come back to Osaka six years ago for that? The whole nature of the Japan experience has changed (even for the Japanese!), and was changing even by the time I’d arrived, back when Kyoto foreigners – studying pottery and poetry and the tea ceremony and all the real Japanese things – shunned you then because you worked at an English school in Osaka and thus engaged in vile commerce. Travellers have been coming here for over a century, settling, staying a time, or moving on (or like me and many friends, moving on then wandering back). Their experience here is, as usual, as much a reflection of the baggage they’ve brought with them as the room they’ve found to unpack it in. You can say that, of course, about anyone who’s travelled, but why this country has such an ambivalent hold on so many of us is something I’ll never quite figure out.
I must get a keitai sometime, by the way.