Thursday, 28 December 2017

Things I Dislike About Japan

Well, it has certainly been a while hasn't it. Heck, this year is almost over but before we get to the positives, I figured I'd introduce a few of the things that I think aren't so great about living in the land of the rising sun. There is a general image that Japan is a wonderful place full of rich culture, technology and quirkiness - and to some degree that's correct - but every country has its flaws and as a result, I figured I'd introduce my own perspective on that.


Japan likes to think it's one of the only countries to have four seasons (insert eye roll here) but when Winter hits, it is bloody cold. England gets very cold too but at least when you step through your front door, it actually feels like you're at home. Not necessarily in Japan however. Central heating is not a thing here. When the houses are erected, they do them very quickly (that's a good thing) but they also build them out of light-weight material (I'm convinced that this to contribute to withstanding earthquakes). So when you open your front door and step inside, it literally feels like you've just stepped back outside again. And waking up in the morning feels like you've been sleeping in ice (it took me an hour to get out of bed this morning). So if you're a Summer being like me, get ready. You've probably never experienced anything like it.

Red Tape

Over here, things are very regimented. There's a system in place for everything. This isn't necessarily a bad thing as it keeps things neat, tidy and everyone knows where they stand. But I feel like a lot of it is unnecessary and things would run a lot more smoothly if Japan "trimmed the fat" a little. A lot of this red tape comes into play when moving house or trying to buy a car...etc. When I moved house, I spent a couple of hours at the estate agent having a guy run through the entire contract which included a section about being responsible for changing my own light-bulbs. A coworker of mine had to have the police verify that he had a parking space available for the new car he was buying. You need a license in order to ride a jet ski here (I rode a jet ski for five minutes in The Canary Islands free of charge, no license necessary). I understand why some of these things are done now that I live here but in some cases is it really that necessary?


....or lack thereof. This relates to the above. As I mentioned before, Japan is very good at putting
Photo courtesy of
systems into place that everyone and anyone must follow (the rules for foreigners and natives are sometimes different however, but that's another entry). Because of this, if one tries to deviate from the norm, it's a little bit difficult for people to handle. This isn't anywhere near as apparent as within the service sector. I've heard that most restaurants, hotels...etc, have a manual which dictates how they're supposed to behave, speak and conduct business when dealing with customers. So when they have to deal with a different situation - that's not in the manual - all hell breaks loose. I once went to a cafe for some breakfast. They had a morning set in place and a selection of drinks to choose from included. I didn't want any of the drinks listed but I was prepared to pay the same price anyway. The staff insisted that I order a drink irrespective. So they gave me an iced tea which I didn't drink. What a waste.


In England, healthcare is free (ish) so coming to Japan which has a system similar to the United States was a bit of a blow to me (and it's not cheap either). That said, because I'm now paying for my healthcare and because it's Japan, I figured the healthcare would be much better than back home but boy, was I wrong.

The first issue is that unlike back home, there are no general practitioners out here which means that you have to find a specific type of clinic that deals with your problem so let the search begin. The good thing is that there are loads of practising consultants. The bad thing is that almost anyone with a license can be one but it doesn't necessary mean they're actually any good. Doctors are also called 先生 (sensei) or "teacher" out here so patients usually defer to them and some doctors think of themselves as superior and all-knowing when in truth, they could use some fine-tuning and bed-side manner training of their own (bedside manner doesn't really exist out here by the way).

Furthermore, doctors also have a habit of prescribing medicine that treats only the symptoms and not necessary the actual problem itself so the issue actually reoccurs and you end up having to go back. As a result, I'm convinced that the healthcare here isn't actually about helping people get better but about having them come back so that the doctors can line their pockets because you're still paying them after all. Therefore, I'd take my free, under-staffed and over-capacity NHS any day. At least I'll get better.


Photo taken from Pinterest
A person I once knew said it perfectly. For females, Japanese fashion comes in two types - little girl or grandma. Obviously, there are sub-cultures and what not in between - visual kei, b-boy...etc - but if we're looking on a general scale at what most members of society would find acceptable, I believe female clothing fits comfortably into those two categories.

In Japan, youth and cuteness is life. The word 可愛い(kawaii) or "cute" is constantly heard throughout the year. Girls love cute things for example, key rings, bows, lace, frills...etc. So it's not uncommon for girls and young women to pander to this image. It is seen on billboards, in magazines and on television. Even ladies in their thirties want to look cute and some will even behave a certain way. When I was living in Hiroshima, I used to frequent a Starbucks and speak to one of the ladies working there. She had a very young and energetic feel to her. I was convinced she was my age (I was in my mid-twenties at the time) only to find out that she had two teenage children. Mind was blown.

On the other hand, women also dress more conservatively. They might show off their legs the younger they are but cleavage is not a thing here and I very rarely see older ladies exposing their arms in Winter or Summer. Office ladies might adopt the white shirt and two piece black suit - blazer and skirt (often knee-length). The shopping centre across from me has a whole host of old lady garments too - usually good quality but overpriced.

This is obviously an exaggeration but neither style particularly suits me. , I find it increasingly difficult to find things I like here in order to dress how I'd like. As a result, I'm pretty sure I dress more like a guy - especially when I'm at work.


Since coming to Japan, I have met lots of people. I've attended many events. I laughed. I exchanged details. But Japan - or at least where I am - is actually quite cold in places. I often hear non-Kanto folk (Kanto is the region I live in) describe Tokyo to be that way (not too dissimilar to London) and I have to say that it hits the nail on the head. As a foreigner living in Japan, I've experienced it myself and I've heard it said so many times. To form connections with the Japanese can be very difficult. A lot of Japanese people see foreigners as temporary because a lot of foreigners - especially teachers - come for a couple of years and then go home so all that effort forming a friendship and putting effort into someone might seem like a waste to them.

In addition, they do take a while to warm up to you. The whole 内・外 (uchi-soto) or "inside" (in-group) and "outside" (out-group) is a real thing here. The in-group being the Japanese and the out-group being everyone else. I started salsa classes 6 months ago and it's only recently that the group members have actually started to try to talk to me and include in - this is including my teacher. They can start off very formal and cold towards you which I'm presuming is just a way of sizing you up before they actually "open the doors".

At the same time however, if you make waves or have a dispute, rather than chew it out like we do back in England, they'd rather do a slow ghosting whereby they'll gradually stop hanging out with you and will stop contacting you and that is universally accepted in this country because no one likes conflict.

Someone might be very friendly and polite on the surface but may harbour deep-ridden animosity towards you on the inside and you may never know. People often don't talk about problems or issues with another. Complaining to someone can be seen as burdening them or may make you look less than favourable too in some cases. And being direct is an absolute no-no. I've heard a lot of Japanese people say that they wish they could be direct but they simply just can't. It's not a thing here.

Therefore, as people from the west who deal with issues head on, who might talk openly about ourselves from the off and who try to be more personable, it's is a completely different system out here. So forming genuine relationships or connections with people out here (more so apparent if you're here long term) might feel next to near impossible and as a result, isolation or loneliness might set in.

So these are a few of the things that I don't like about Japan and I'd like to stress that these are my own opinions so you should probably take them with a grain of salt. Everyone experiences Japan differently. Some people haven't a bad word to say about it while others are knee-deep in their feelings.

Such is life right?

Monday, 29 May 2017

The Japan Files ~ Mental Health

I am not an expert.

I studied psychology for three years. I had a brief stint with Childline and I counsel (I say this loosely) my friends when they're in need, but I am far from qualified to talk about this topic. Nevertheless, I have made a few observations about Japan and it's attitude towards mental health issues, and I have also come to the following conclusion:

There seems to be no real acknowledgement of mental health in this country.

I have seen countless people running around who I know have issues but they're allowed to roam the streets freely. People who shout, clap, make other strange noises, people who talk to themselves or who try to talk to other people even though it's obvious that they're not in their right mind.

Photo courtesy of  Exposing the Truth
I booked an appointment to see a psychiatrist. I filled out a form and spent no more than a couple of minutes in the room with the doctor who asked me all of two questions and immediately prescribed me medication to help me "relax". I remember thinking "that was quick; that was easy". If I was a drug addict, I'd know where to go next time. But in the UK, it's not common practise to prescribe medication to just anyone. I would assume that with the prescription of drugs would come a little bit of counselling too and there just didn't seem to be any of that.

From what I've heard, mental health, other disabilities and associated issues are often swept under the carpet. As a teacher, I've met children who have had clear behavioural problems that often go unacknowledged by the parent. None of the teachers were trained to deal with that sort of thing but we were expected to deal with it anyway, no matter how taxing or difficult it made teaching the class.

Some people don't want to acknowledge that their loved ones may be suffering with something because in Japan, mental illness is seen as a sign of weakness, or a sign of "bad blood". And no one wants to be seen as "that family" with "that kid". He's just 元気(genki) - energetic, is all. There's nothing wrong with my son. He's completely normal.

And you know, it's not dissimilar from the black community too. Things are changing, but older generations didn't like to acknowledge mental illnesses either. A case is point happened to me during university when I had a bit of a dark period. My grandmother's solution was to simply "put it out of my head". But it's never that simple is it?

It isn't to say that Japan is a complete lost cause however. I've seen some families where a member is clearly unable and the family members appear to be taking care of them. I see a lot more of them now then when I first arrived in Japan. But I don't think Japan is the kind of country that likes to talk out it's issues.

With words like 我慢 (gaman) - perseverance - and 頑張る (ganbaru) - to do one's best - people are encouraged to overcome all obstacles; large and small. But when they can't gaman or ganbaru anymore, what can they do and who do they turn to?

I've said it before, but I think Japan is a country that - while very advanced in terms of technology - it's about fifty years behind in terms of interpersonal and sociological development. I don't think I'll see a dramatic shift in my generation, but I hope Japan takes the steps towards taking better care of the psychological well-being of its inhabitants and removing the stigmas attached to mental health issues.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The Life and Times of being a Middle School Student in Japan.

I've been teaching children for over three years now, and it isn't without it's challenges, that's for sure. Whether it's made me more tolerant of children, I can't say for sure, but as I mentioned in an earlier post, Japanese children are just like any other children in the world. Some are good; some are terrible. Some are bright and some are dull. Some really like studying and some of them don't. But children in Japan - just like almost everywhere else - tend to follow the same patterns as their predecessors. They go to nursery, they attend primary school and then they start middle school (or junior high school for my audience across the Pacific). And middle school is no joke. Mess up here and it could spell doom for your future.


Entering Middle School

Pro: Primary school is a doddle but I get the vibe that when children become middle school students, it's really time to start buckling down. In a way, this is a positive as it starts to prepare them for the real world. Because we adults know that it's not all fun and games. We have to grow up, adapt, follow the rules and get in line. It isn't to say that we don't learn some of these rules in primary school either but I get the vibe that there's more of a sense of seriousness about middle school

Con: Say goodbye to your childhood. In my current job, it isn't uncommon for children to quit taking English lessons right before middle school. Maybe the parents consider English a little bit of fun before the real work starts; who knows? But tests increase, the workload gets harder and I feel like the freedom they might have experienced in primary school becomes considerably non-existent.

After School Clubs

Pro: The Japanese are usually quite slim. And I think one of the reasons why is because they promote lots of extra curricula activities; especially sports. In the UK, after school club happen once or twice a week for an hour at best. But in Japan, they take it very seriously. In a way, it's great for keeping kids fit or getting them to make friends with each other. It's also something to look forward to after class.

Con: Unlike the UK, after school clubs are a little bit over the top. I once taught a girl who was in the tennis club. When she arrived for my lesson, she was so tired after having trained for well over five hours; there was an up and coming tournament apparently. Some kids go to club every day. As I said, the Japanese are really particular about their extra curricula activities. But it can get to the point where they suck the fun completely out of it.


Middle school boys wearing gakuran
Pro: We've seen the anime. And I've seen enough kids (and adults) to know that uniformity is another thing that is taken very seriously here. You will look polished and you will represent your school well; even when you're not attending class. I actually quite like the 学ラン(gakuran) style uniform as it really does look quite smart.

Con: Like most uniforms the world over, there isn't really much chance for self expression. In school, dying your hair (a reasonable colour) or make up is not allowed. The most I've seen kids do is unbutton the blazer or wear the undershirt. If the kid plays sports, they must wear their PE kit - even on a weekend. A child represents their school everywhere. And sometimes when it's not even school related - a dance club, for example - there are uniforms for those too.

Cram School

Pro: Also known as (juku). The minute a kid is due to start middle school, the salesmen come knocking apparently. Cram school is a way in which middle schoolers keep on top of their grades. It's useful for kids who fall behind in certain subjects or for the kids that want to be at the top of their game. I benefitted from an after school "cram class" of sorts when I was in secondary school and it really bumped my grade up. In the UK, these types of schools aren't so apparent however, but in Japan, they are everywhere.

Con: On top of all the homework and after school clubs and piano lessons and English classes, juku is another thing to add to a middle schooler's long list of things to do. Unfortunately however, like all childrearing in Japan, cram school does not come cheap at all and most parents feel pressured into sending their kids to cram school out of fear or them falling behind their peers.


Middle schoolers can undergo some very long days in Japan. I've seen students riding their bicycles home at around 10pm at night which completely boggles the mind considering that in the UK, most kids are home well before dinnertime. I've had children arrive at my lessons completely famished - having not even eaten due to their long schedules. But in a way, it's almost indicative of what is to come because when one enters the workforce, overtime is eminent. Getting home late is eminent. Skipping a meal is on occasion eminent and it doesn't seem to be changing any time soon.

So I commend the students here. They work really hard and go through some tough times. I often hear however that once they overcome this hurdle and enter a decent high school, it gets easier after that. Even university is a piece of cake apparently but that's a entry for another time.