The grass is always greener on the other side, as they say. I received a mysterious e-mail today, sent from a Japanese mobile phone that is unknown to me. The message was short and to the point: this person found my blog and asked me if it was ok to comment on my blog. The message he wants to convey is: Japan sucks.
Well, that certainly piqued my interest. Perhaps a bit surprising to the people who know me and have witnessed my Japanophilification in person, my first reaction wasn’t to violently disagree with this statement. Rather I remembered the semi-salaryman lifestyle I and my (Japanese) friends used to have in Japan, and how some Japanese people I knew there had feelings similar to my anonymous messenger.
But then, who doesn’t? Dutch people in particular are great at complaining about their own country, yet when it’s time for soccer they cheer for their national team like wild lions. Being unsatisfied about the society you live in is a world-wide standard. It’s just that sometimes people get a glimpse of a different society for a while, only remember the good parts, and then suddenly think that their own society is so much the worse.
I think Japan rocks, and I will give you three reasons for that which really have nothing to do with Japan. First of all, there’s the people. I happened to meet a huge amount of very interesting people there, a lot of them not even Japanese. A city like Tokyo can be cold and empty if you don’t know anyone, but if you have friends of like mind who are willing to hang out with you and do things you like together then it becomes a giant kid’s playground, and a warm welcoming home.
Secondly, coming to Japan, I had to live on my own for the first time in my life. And I mean really live on my own. I was suddenly supposed to be able to work, rent a room, get a cell phone contract, figure out where the supermarket is etc. etc. And all of that in a language I really didn’t master enough when I first arrived in Japan. It was an adventure in itself to figure out how to use the washer to clean my clothes. It expanded my world and made daily life things seem a lot more interesting than they ever could be back in Holland.
Which kind of leads me to my third point: Japan was for me, and will hopefully again be, an adventure, and when you are there you will be treated as an adventurer. Rather than being a nobody employee living in my own country just like everybody else, I was immediately recognizable as an outsider, and treated as such. But not in a bad way. People knew you were a foreigner and expected you to be different, that’s all. If I wanted to go out in the middle of the night and go on a cycling adventure, people around me would just say “That’s crazy! But you are a foreigner and you might not be in Japan for very long, so why not? Sounds like fun, actually”. Whereas if a Japanese person would do that, they might get thrown a remark like “What the hell are you doing? Are you crazy? Be a proper member of society and try to be more respectable”. It’s not just your own experience that changes, it’s also the way other people treat you. In Japan if you’re a non-Asian looking foreigner, expect great things to happen to you. I’m basing this off of my experience with Japanese friends and foreign friends living in Japan, the former group always having to create some kind of fun themselves, the latter group always walking into it.
I realize that the examples I’ve put forward are like to my personality. Doing random things like a midnight cycling trip is in tune with my character, and living in Japan did not impede that. But rather than focus on such a specific thing I wanted to point out how accommodating Japan is to whatever lifestyle you choose to have. If I ever go back there I will undoubtedly live a much more normal life than before, and eventually it will perhaps feel no different from if I was living in Holland. No country is unaccommodating to you as long as you adapt yourself a little. For me, the novelty of living in a foreign country is great and I want to experience it again. There’s plenty of ex-pats who will agree with that.
You can’t have that in Europe. It’s just a different culture. If you walk around in London you’ll see people from everywhere, no easy way to spot the tourist except by the large camera around his neck, which will probably be stolen by other people who have spotted it too. Again, speaking for my own case only, being instantly recognized as a tourist or a non-native (and being treated friendly because/despite of that) improved my outlook on life. Why can’t we always be as nice to each other as we are to tourists?
As I said before, all of the reasons of why I like Japan are not really related to Japan in any way. The reverse is applied for Japanese people visiting Europe. They’ll go to some countryside place that has a famous landmark, be instantly recognized as tourists by the locals and then treated very nicely. The only difference is that Japan is such a mono-ethnic nation that foreign elements immediately stand out, amplifying the effect. Moving these reasons away from myself and a bit more in the objective domain, part of the reason that I was treated nicely in Japan is because I showed an interest in Japanese language and culture, which is received gratefully as I’m sure it is in any other country. I am genuinely interested in Japan, and I do genuinely believe that it’s a great country to live in, either as a native or as a foreigner. We just might not always be able to see that of other countries, too.
Well, this post became quite messed up. I wasn’t quite sure if I wanted to objectively talk about why people prefer living in countries/cultures other than their own or just talk about the things I liked about Japan, and I ended up doing both.
Most of all though, I wrote this post as a discussion starter for my anonymous friend, and to anyone who would like to join in. Maybe you have a specific opinion on Japan, or maybe you are also one of those people who thinks their home country sucks. Let yourself be heard, and let’s see whose country sucks the most!