Things I Learned in My First Two Weeks In Tokyo:
- Americans don't know from crowded. There's two-way traffic down
streets in Tokyo that would barely be one way streets in Manhattan, and that's
not including the constant stream of people on bikes (all of which
are the squarish, ugly, black Schwinns with big front baskets that kids
in the US sneer at... They're one step up from "pedal backwards to
And every square centimeter of ground in Tokyo is being used for something-
there are apartments piled on top of apartments, squeezed in next to
apartments all through the semi-suburban area I was living in. Every one of
them apparently occupied by well-dressed people owning black Schwinns...
- Americans don't know from "expensive," either. The rent for my apartment in Komae was just shy of
twice what I paid in (Don't Go Back To) Rockville, MD, and bedroom, bathroom,
and kitchen were squeezed into about the same square footage as my bedroom
in MD (roughly ten by sixteen-- here's a picture of the bathroom in my apartment, which was a molded plastic cube exactly the same height as I am...). Even my sister in Berkeley pays less per square foot than people
do in Japan...
And, while the price of a restaurant entree is about the same as what
I would expect to pay in DC, that gets you about half as much food. Now,
granted, American restaurants are known around the world for giving you
about twice as much as anyone really ought to eat at one sitting, but
- God help me, but "speak English loudly and slowly" really does seem to
be the key to international communications. I shared an office at the University with
four (five? I was never really clear how many people were actually in that office) Chinese postdocs, one Japanese student, and two Koreans (one
of whom bore the slightly unfortunate name of Dr. Noh...), and
conversations between any two of the nationalities represented were
carried out in laborious broken English.
I do know a tiny bit of Japanese, and I made an effort to use it when
I went out on my own (the students at the university where I was working would all
default to English when I was around, and I'm lazy enough to just roll with
that), but it was surprisingly difficult. Not because of my shaky knowledge
of the language (which is certainly weak, but my biggest problem was just
that everybody in Asia talks too damn fast, and I can't sort it out into
individual words) so much as because the universal response to my glazed
look at being confronted with rapid-fire Japanese was to switch to
- If you're American (or any other species of Native English Speaker)
and get dragged out to a karaoke bar, you will be forced to sing
"Yesterday" by the Beatles. I have no idea why that is, but this has been
confirmed by at least half a dozen other people...
- If you're a tall American, don't wander around Shinjuku in the rain.
Ten thousand goddamn people on every street in front of me, every single
one of whom was carrying an umbrella exactly at my eye level...
- Don't ask what it is, just eat it. Even if it looks weird. (To be
fair, this is a rule worth following in ethnic restaurants in the States,
- The Japanese like a good trashy story as much as anybody else, as
evidenced by the fact that perfect strangers would come up to me in public
parks and ask what I thought about Bill Clinton...
- The Armed Forces Radio network is an (unintentional) laugh riot. The
Inspirational Military Moments they provide every hour or so (a thirty-second spot, extolling the bravery of some unit or another in a war long past) are
screamingly funny... (And, curiously, almost all of them were about European events in WWII, which makes me suspect that the good folks at Weisbaden AFB in Deutschland are being subjected to endless stories about Iwo Jima and
- Tokyo- particularly Shinjuku- is an incredible mass of contrasting
elements. You can be walking along between twenty-storey glass-and-steel
buildings (the first floors of which are packed with restaurants,
electronics stores, and sleazy strip bars), turn the corner, and walk
into a huge, well-tended garden with a Shinto shrine smack in the middle
of it... And on the other side of the shrine are more bars, restaurants,
and sleazy strip clubs in skyscrapers.
- How anybody learns to read in Japan is a mystery to me. There are
three entirely distinct systems of writing (Chinese (kanji) characters, two Japanese phonetic scripts (katakana and hiragana), plus the occasional sign in Roman letters, and the only consistent rule
I noticed was that foreign words which have been crowbarred into
Japanese are always in katakana. But not all katakana is foreign words,
and advertisements switch back and forth between katakana, hiragana, and
buglike kanji characters with no discernible pattern (at least to one who
only knows the phonetic scripts).
What a mess.
And it's really difficult to work electronic gadgets (or computer
software) when the documentation is half in kanji. "Let's see... Dead bug, jellyfish, jellyfish, dead bug, birdlike thing, 15 amperes... That's a big help."
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Last modified: 11 December, 2001