A response to Cracked’s “Five things nobody tells you about living in Japan”

A rebuttal, a complaint, an objection.  Writing this and then seeing the ridiculous comments on the original Cracked article is what made me think I should try posting my thoughts in a public place.  Original article can be found here.

Cracked’s “Five things nobody tells you about living in Japan” is pretty ridiculous.  The five general points he’s trying to make I think are fair:

•It is not like living in space.

•No central heating in homes.

•Hospitals close.

•People speak Japanese.

•It is a place in the world where people live.

But almost all of the specifics of his arguments are pretty superficial and rant-y.  And the ones he links to are even more so.

#5 Everything is Frightfully Low-Tech

His main point of evidence here is that Japan still uses fax machines.  But as someone points out in the comments, “Fax machines aren’t old technology.  All offices use them.”  When I worked at the copy center across the street from one of the largest universities in America, people came in to send faxes all the time.  I’ve read that in Japan fax machines are a particularly popular staple of homes as well as offices because of the general need to draw maps when giving someone directions.  Streets don’t have names so people usually will just make you a map.  Obviously fax machines make sending these maps really easy.  In fact, much easier than anything you can do today.

Which is a useful way to illustrate an important point that needs to be made here:  technology does not always equal good.  Just because something is new doesn’t mean it is better than the old ways.  Screwing around with a slow, clunky, hard-to-use “electronic chalkboard” is inferior to just using a real chalkboard.  There are many advantages paper books have over digital ones (which became all-to-clear to me when iBooks lost all of my notes).  So, if you wanted to draw someone a map to your house and send it to them using the latest technology, how would that go for you?  You can email it, but then you have to try drawing it on your screen with a mouse in some MS Paint type program, making sure to save it in a format that the other person can read.  There’s probably an app for that, but even if you have a smartphone subscription (which costs way more than a fax machine that just uses your normal phone line), you’re still having to use your fat fingers to draw a detailed map on a tiny screen.  But with a fax machine, you just draw the map out by hand real quick, stick that piece of paper in the machine, and dial the number.  The person on the other end definitely uses the same format (paper), so need to worry on that score.

After the fax machine rant, the author links to an old BBC editorial that is just a compilation of foreigner rants.  The article pulls from sources like “Taro Hitachi,” which turns out to be a pseudonym for someone who appears to be an American; Alex Kerr, of “Dogs and Demons” fame; and the entire second half of the article is based on comments from “blogger Hideki Onda” (which also illustrates a problem with this “digital age”:  while random comedy shows in Japan will fly their comedians around the world for a single episode, major news sources in the West like the BBC will publish articles relying entirely on blogger posts and interviews conducted in English via email).

The next article he links to opens with this vignette:

“I moved into my apartment in August 2008.  My immediate observations were: there’s no oven, how can I cook without an oven?  The stove looked like it belonged on a camp site.  The apartment came with a VHS video-recorder. What was I ever going to do with that?  There was a Discman in one of the drawers.  I found cassette tapes.  There was no central heating, just kerosene heaters that give off toxic fumes.  This apartment was not even 10 years old, but already its contents were sadly out of date.”

An oven is now high technology?  (Although, to be fair, in Walden Thoreau laments that he misses the beauty of his fire that his oven now sits over, and then wonders if one day people will forget that their ancestors roasted potatoes in the ashes.)  But besides that, why are there tapes and shit littered about your apartment?  Oh wait, you’re an English teacher who moved into the uncleaned apartment of your predecessor.  Little tip for ya, apartments shouldn’t have contents, old or new, you’re supposed to provide those yourself; you just got saddled with someone’s trash, a common story in the ALT scene (I’ve personally never since seen a refrigerator as old as the one that got ditched on me that the previous person was escaping paying the disposal fee for).

The next linked article is sub-titled,

“The world’s most efficient economy still employs lots gas station attendants and elevator operators. Why?”

Why?  Why not?!  Japan is the land of customer service; only the exceedingly rich in the West get the kind of service every single person gets in this country. I guess Japan should modernize and get those robots that fill and clean your car for you that we have at most every gas station in America.  Oh wait, those don’t exist.  Every single tank of gas the world over is still pumped by a human.  How is it advancement to have to do it yourself?  Full service stations are objectively better.

The Cracked article then goes on to complain about ATMs not being open 24 hours a day.  Really?  You want to use ATMs as the evidence that Japan is in some sort of dark age?  Those machines that can update your bank book and not only turn the page, but insert new pages when it runs out?  I mean how do they do that?  But yes, aside from the ATMs located in convenience stores, which are everywhere, most bank ATMs close a couple of hours after the bank does (but are open seven days a week).  Besides the obvious savings on electricity, have you ever seen an out-of-order ATM in Japan?  Me neither.  If a bank was to have a 24 hour ATM, the bank’s customers would demand that someone be available to come out and fix it 24 hours a day.  Also, despite Japan’s unbelievably low crime rate, there is still crime in this country.  The maximum you can take out of an ATM here at once is in the thousands of dollars.  I can’t even imagine how much cash is sitting inside of every ATM in Japan.  Violent crime is almost non-existent, so you probably wouldn’t be mugged at 3am at the ATM, but some thieves might try to break into that ATM at that late hour.  I can see why banks would not want to take those kinds of risks.

And as for paying in cash, that’s how the West used to be too.  Sure credit and debit cards are convenient, you don’t have to screw around with loose change (which is in fact how VISA advertises itself on TV here), but was that really the primary driver towards them in the last twenty or thirty years?  People happily used cash for everything up to that point, what happened?  Crime.  Massive crime in the 80s and 90s happened.  Crime rates have generally declined in the 2000s, but we’re really still just getting back to about the 80s.  I remember reading as a kid an article in a newspaper that people were getting mugged over as little as twenty dollars.  That just doesn’t happen here.  Old ladies can walk any street at any time of the night, carrying thousands of dollars in their purses and not be molested in the least.  There just aren’t enough muggers in this country to drive it away from cash.  Before leaving the US I closed my back account and was quite concerned about all the money I was carrying around.  The bank staff themselves were uneasy about it.  But here I took four thousand dollars in cash with me to buy a used car and didn’t give it a second thought.  As Forces of Order, Policing Modern Japan puts it, “Americans who live for a while in Japan soon begin to experience a liberating sense of freedom; they forget to be afraid.”

#4 The Houses Have No Heat

This is largely true, but there are a few things to be said here that the article leaves out completely.  The biggest glaring omission is that no where does the author mention that Japanese contraption known as a kotatsu.  I live very far north of Tokyo, and I only ever use a kotatsu in winter (which shocks all my Japanese acquaintances), yet I always feel warm and toasty for a very low price.

The author complains that, “The Japanese simply do not heat more than one or two places in the entire house…” but Japan has few natural resources, it already has to import nearly all of it’s oil and other energy sources.  If everyone started heating their entire homes the nation’s energy needs would skyrocket.  And in this era of global warming is that really a good idea anyway?

Besides that, what is wrong with adapting to your natural environment, it is not only more eco-friendly, but more fun.  People here enjoy feeling the seasons, even the less-than-comfortable bits.  This past summer I ran my apartment’s AC for a few days while some painting was going on downstairs (making having the windows open rather unpleasant), and I felt cut off from everyone.  I’d see someone in the evening and they’d say, “Wow it was really hot today!” and I’d have to kind of nod along.  There is a certain pleasantness in being able to tell at least what time of year it is even though you’re indoors.  It is nice to sit in your living room sipping some tea, idly gazing out the window, and being able to feel the passage of time.  In the West we only think of conquering nature, but in Japan one is much more part of it, and it doesn’t stop just because you went indoors.

Another element worth mentioning here is that, in a reversal of things in America, public spaces tend to be more opulent than private ones.  The local community center here, for example, though by no means a new building is kept incredibly warm in winter with central heating.  Probably this is largely a product of the fact that in Japan people rarely entertain at home, they usually go out to places designed for that purpose.  You wouldn’t normally bring a coworker home with you afterwork to meet your family and have a few beers, you’d go to a little bar for your drinks and snacks.  When my English conversation group wants to have a cooking day, we generally reserve the big, well-stocked kitchen at the community center rather than meet at someone’s private home.  These are just basic differences in culture.

#3 The Hospitals Close on Evenings and Weekends

 Yes, but at least you can go to them.  And I don’t just mean because American ones are priced beyond what you can afford, though they definitely are.  No, when I tried to get a chest X-ray done in the States and so called the local hospital down the street, they told me they couldn’t do it.  Even though they had the machines, it was only for people already in the hospital.  You had to either come in with an emergency or get permission from some other doctor in order to be so privileged as to use the astronomically priced facilities at the hospital.  To this day I do not understand this system.  In Japan, you can walk into any hospital you want, and your insurance has to pay for it.

However, the author then goes on to tell a huge lie:

“So if you lop off a digit at a family barbecue, you basically have to wrap your stump in a Pikachu towel full of ice, wait for Monday to roll around and hope your severed finger doesn’t get freezer burn.”

That’s right, he claims there is no emergency medical care in Japan!  Hell no, you just call the damn ambulance and they take you to an emergency room.  Sure, not every little five-bed “hospital” (really just a dressed-up doctor’s office) has an emergency room, but they do exist.  In fact, here is, in it’s entirety, someone’s experience using one that comes up as the first result on Google for “Japanese emergency room”:

“In Tokyo, the emergency room is staffed with enough people that everyone has multiple attendants always taking care of them, whereas in the US it can often be hours between check-ins by the staff.

In an American emergency room, it is up to the patient to undress themselves and put on a gown; if they are unable to do that, the staff will cut the clothing off. In Japan, they do as much as possible without removing any clothing, and are exceptionally conscientious about the patient’s comfort.

In a Japanese emergency room, the language barrier is something they attempt to overcome and make sure that everyone knows the same amount of information; in an American emergency room, the attending staff tends to not communicate or even listen to the patient.

In an American emergency room, regardless of what’s going on they always hook you up to a saline drip, while in a Japanese emergency room, that is considered a treatment that they only perform when it appears to be necessary.

In an American emergency room, if you have to use the bathroom it takes quite a lot of time before an attending nurse even finds out that you need to, and they just give you a jar to pee in before disappearing. In a Japanese emergency room, they accompany you to the bathroom and make sure that you’re doing okay.

An American emergency room bills you later, via the convoluted process of American medical insurance. A Japanese emergency room either bills your insurance directly and asks you to pay the difference (if you have insurance), or just bills you directly and has you pay before you leave (and provides receipts for reimbursement with foreign insurance claims later). Fortunately, the overall uninsured bill of a Japanese emergency room is less than the copayments involved in an American emergency room, so even if one doesn’t get reimbursed you still end up ahead.

An American emergency room is doing good if they keep track of your name and mailing address. A Japanese emergency room issues you a personalized smart card that keeps track of your medical history with them for easy access later.

On the other hand, an American emergency room understands that people come in all sorts of sizes and shapes, whereas in a Japanese emergency room, the beds are very small and cramped, the slippers they give you for going to the bathroom (you don’t wear shoes!) are tiny, and the adhesive on the tape sticks exceptionally well to a hirsute-American’s arms.

Neither one can figure out what the hell is wrong with me.

Also, the Japanese ambulance was charmingly urgent yet polite about it. On the PA the driver constantly said something that roughly translates to, “Make way for a patient in distress, please,” and drivers let him through! The entire ride was also smooth and surprisingly pleasant (aside from my elbow getting pinched between the rail of the too-small gurney and the side of the car).

What a huge lie!  If Japan was a person it could sue the author for libel.

But he doesn’t stop there, then we get this tid-bit:

“And make sure to bring cash with you (see above), because while the majority of hospitals have ATMs, you really don’t want to play “Will my card work here?” while you’re bleeding from the face.”  

No!  Unlike the States you don’t get turned away for not being able to pay your bill.

#2 You Will Always Be an Outsider

The first part here is very true; people speak Japanese in JapanIn reality though many people get by without learning more than a few words of Japanese.  As mentioned above, this is the land of service; people fall over themselves trying to figure out your English and help you, even way out here in the provinces.  But there is no denying that your life becomes significantly easier the more Japanese that you know.

But then, of course, we have this very typical part about not being treated as a Japanese person, I mean just look at the author:

“Well, here’s how it was with me: I’ve been coming to Japan for nearly a decade, my wife is Japanese, I speak the language fluently, I know the culture inside and out, and yet I’m still “that foreign guy” to most people here (even the ones who have known me for close to 10 years).” 

You took your first vacation to Japan ten years ago Well then clearly you should be considered Japan’s greatest citizen!  Oh wait, you‘re not even a citizen so you are literally, by legal definition, a “foreign guy.”  And besides that, at best you speak Japanese with an accent (and far more likely speak Japanese very poorly).  Are non-citizens who speak accented English considered just normal, everyday Americans in the States?  Hell no!  That guy who speaks perfect English but with a bit of a Russian accent is “that guy from Russia.”

Let’s cut the crap.  You have to have lived in America for several generations before you get to approach being a “real American.”  If you are a first-generation immigrant, you will always be an outsider in America.  In fact, I challenge someone to show me any country where someone fresh-off-the-boat is considered to be just as much belonging to that country as someone whose ancestors have lived there for hundreds of generations.

Now let’s get back to the facts:

“For instance, one of the biggest hot button issues in Japan concerns people of Korean ancestry who live in the country. In most cases, these are people who were born in Japan, have Japanese names and speak almost exclusively Japanese, but because of their Korean lineage, they are still legally considered foreigners and as such face several restrictions (such as the inability to vote or hold management positions in the public sector, a law that the Supreme Court actually upheld in 2005). The government literally decided that all Koreans are dastardly shitheads who are not to be trusted and mandated it to the entire country.”

“[Zainichi Koreans] by all rights should be full Japanese citizens were it not for ethnic prejudice

This is completely wrong.  It is so wrong that in fact the opposite is true:  it is incredibly easy for Zainichi Koreans to obtain citizenship, the government gives them special consideration because of their background, and I have never even heard of one being denied.  The only reason they are not Japanese citizens is because they refuse to take on Japanese citizenship, and instead choose to remain citizens of one of the Koreas.  Of course many of them do eventually decide to take on citizenship, and so the population of Zainichi Koreans is actually in decline.  And yes, you have to be a citizen to vote or hold important positions in the government, I don’t see how that is so strange.

#1 The Country Really Isn’t That Weird

Now how true this is depends on how weird you think Japan is.  Because there are things that are weird.  Sure used panty machines are illegal (though they did exist), but even out here in the country you can get porn, vibrators, and penis pumps from a road-side vending machine.  And I’ve also played a crane game around here where you try and capture capsules with little vibrators or panties (unused) in them.

And, contrary to what the author thinks, anime is on TV a lot.  This is easy to objectively prove because almost every anime series that you can find online aired on TV here at some point.  That’s a lot of episodes to air.  Sure, obsessing over it is something you might want to keep to yourself, but you can unashamedly tell someone you like Gintama or One Piece and they’ll know what you‘re talking about and not think any less of you.  And all types of adults stand in bookstores reading manga like it is the most natural thing in the world.  Hell, even more otaku-y stuff like K-ON or Lucky Star will commonly have tie-up products for sale at every convenience store across the country.  Anime, manga, and video games are cheap and plentiful in their homeland of Japan.  The only possible downside to them is that they are all in Japanese,  but if you are “fluent” like the author, that shouldn’t be a problem.

Also, what is so off about this image:

The author uses it as if it is some fake thing, but it looks pretty normal to me.  Hello Kitty stuff is literally everywhere in this country, and food-wise the contents of that bento are pretty standard; tempura shrimp, omelet, hamburger patty, fried rice, etc.  If you make even a modest income, you can eat bento like that everyday for the rest of your life.

However, I do like some of the “wacky Japan” stuff the author mentions in this section, such as:

“There’s a Simpsons porn out there featuring people sweatily groping each other in jaundiced yellow body paint, for Christ’s sake. Nobody is posting clips of that on the Internet and claiming it’s the new season … well actually, somebody probably is, but nobody would seriously believe that.”

“Just like those goofy “true life” pornos MILF Hunter or Bang Bus, nothing about it even approaches reality, yet all you apparently need to do is tell everyone it’s from Japan and suddenly people think it comes on every night after Wheel of Fortune.”

“I shook my head particularly hard when I read about the Japanese fundraiser that allowed people to squeeze some hot girl’s breasts if they donated money to AIDS research, because every website that reported on it wrote about it like it happens every Tuesday in Japan. It doesn’t. The event was hosted by a freaking porn channel — that’s like if Hugh Hefner held a topless car wash at the Playboy Mansion and the BBC told the rest of the world that there was one next to every McDonald’s in America.”

In conclusion, I refer you to this commenter’s opinion:

“This article is as much generalization as the internet’s “wacky” image is.”

And it really is.  The piece is entirely sourced from foreigner rants about stuff they don’t like that happened while they were living in Japan.  That doesn’t make it true.  If you go to Japan it may or may not be what you are expecting, and reading rants from people who have lived there is not necessarily a bad idea as a way to prepare yourself for the absolute worst.  But the reality is that Japan is a country that is pleasant, beautiful, filled with kind people that will routinely go out of their way to help you, and always has something new waiting around every corner.  Maybe it is not quite the space-age, maybe people still like to go browse at a physical bookstore or movie rental shop rather than just get everything online, but I think one of the most endearing things about Japan are the remnants of a time that has been so quickly forgotten in the West.  People prefer to shop at specialty stores rather than big mega-marts that sell everything, the gas stations are full service with a free window-clean while you wait inside your car for your tank to be filled, old technology is not immediately thrown away so that you can still find things like NES games and VHS tapes easily, and people eat locally and in season, quietly savoring the passage of time.  It is the idealized, TV-version of 1950s America come to life, which is an amazingly wonderful accomplishment, no matter what else.

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3 Responses to A response to Cracked’s “Five things nobody tells you about living in Japan”

  1. Hot damn, this article made me want to visit Japan all of a sudden.

  2. leoboiko says:

    > In fact, I challenge someone to show me any country where someone fresh-off-the-boat is considered to be just as much belonging to that country as someone whose ancestors have lived there for hundreds of generations.

    Brazil. If you choose to naturalize and even take the trouble to learn the language (however accented), no one will deny you’re a 100% fully-belonging Brazilian, and you won’t face any kind of barrier or refusal of service whatsoever. “To turn Japanese” is a metaphor, “to turn Brazilian” an unremarkable idiom. At worst they’ll consider you “still” a naïve gringo if you take stuff too seriously; but as soon as you learn to take life in stride, everyone will say “oh they’re already totally Brazilified (abrasileirado) now”.

    • defenderland says:

      Well the author of the Cracked article certainly didn’t naturalize, and doesn’t strike me as someone who’s taken the trouble to learn all that much Japanese. His whole claim to Japan was that he first visited the country 10 years ago.
      And while I don’t know any Portuguese I do hope that your description of Brazil as a place where no one is prejudiced against immigrants is true. My home country is also an immigrant nation, but irony has never stopped it from being super prejudiced against various ethnic minorities over the centuries.

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