First Impressions of Japan (three months late)

Hello and welcome to the rechristening of my blog! I’ve been in Japan a day shy of three months now, although about half that time was spent in the ocean. I apologize for the delay, but the Navy life is not one filled with plenty of leisure time. That said, I did manage to crank out one short little entry. This is something I wrote while underway a few weeks upon arriving in the Land of the Rising Sun. It’s a bit old, it’s a bit raw, and it’s a bit bitter. Edits have been made to make it less… coarse.

A month in Japan has taught me that the country is not as bizarre as many sources would lead you to believe. Sure, their culture is far different from America’s (you don’t tip waiters, for example), and there are scores of oddities you can buy off the street, and copyright laws seem nonexistent (the first building I saw was the Narnia Antique Shop), and there is, of course, anime all over, and there are a TON of drink machines, like, everywhere, but things are mostly the same. If you take a broad view.

Up close is a different story.

Japan is weird. It’s a good weird, but everything I’ve heard about this country could not prepare me for coming here.

Contradictory? Yes. Let me explain.

Everywhere I have gone, either to visit or to live, has been an English speaking area, or at least an area based on a Latinate language (four years of Spanish got me through Madrid and, thanks to a probably offensive pizzeria accent, Italy). Coming to Japan might as well be going to another world. The language, to the unprepared, is indecipherable. Yes, there are only so many characters in the three alphabets used on a daily basis (one of them has over 2000, I hear, but it’s okay because you only need to know about 1800), but to me this is like being a toddler trying to read Shakespeare, except I’m old enough to feel bad about my ignorance.

Japanese people don’t speak English. That’s not to say they are incapable or have never learned, but a lot of people seem to pretend they have no idea how. Apparently it’s taught in early school years, but oftentimes the former students don’t feel their English is up to snuff and would rather tell you they can’t speak English than risk butchering it. Conversely, attempting to speak Japanese can earn you brownie points (unless you speak it so badly they have to think about what you just said to understand you butchering their language, even though you’re trying your best, damn it). Learning a few key phrases can take you a long way, and you can usually point to menu items if there are pictures (pizza is pizza is pizza is pizza). The hard part is going somewhere without too many tourists. At that point you might as well hunch over, scratch your sides, and don your finest smilodon tunic.

People often say the country is crowded, but it’s hard to really understand why or how unless you’ve been in the thick of a shopping spree on a weekend in Akihabara. I’m not claustrophobic, but being surrounded by that many people who are doing their best to ignore/not impede you in a crowded store where the shelves are so close together you can’t turn around while wearing a backpack without knocking something down and all you want to do is leave… well, traveling can feel like a challenge. (Of course, riding the Tube during rush hour beats anywhere else in terms of personal space violations, and at least Japanese culture heavily emphasizes bathing.) I’ve also heard about gloved train employees whose sole job is shoving you and everyone else who has to go right now into the train car, personal space be damned. The thought that, even with the already brisk pace at the train stations, cars can get that crowded is almost petrifying.

Despite the Bill Murray-esque abjection, I really do like it here. There’s always something cool to see and do, and even the things people take for granted are fascinating. Like the plastic umbrella covers: those things are everywhere!

(There you have it. For the record, the next few posts will have pictures I’ve taken, as well as discussions about food and the sights I have seen.)

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