When I try to recall Japan, I get flashes of memories. Getting on the wrong express train platform and going the opposite direction, getting my phone back after my brother dropped it while we were hiking up Mount Fuji, finding a person unconsious in the bushes while getting back from work who I thought was dead but turned out to just be black out drunk. There were a lot of things I thought I knew about Japan, but living in it shed a new light on what Japan represented and what it actually is.
My mom once said, “If you go overseas to study or work, you’re not gonna enjoy the country.” And that made a lot of sense to me because you’re living your life, and life ain’t that great regardless where you are. Eventually the rose-tinted glasses are gonna come off, even for a reputable country like Japan, and for me it happened immediately once I started working. For the record, I couldn’t speak the language. I knew enough to survive, but I wasn’t fluent to have like a long conversation with a Japanese person so my culture shocks are from the perspective of a really frustrated foreigner.
When I first arrived in Tokyo, my apartment didn’t have internet. My company gave a portable broadband with 4GB limit and it was okay on the go but I was alone in Tokyo, how was I going to stream Netflix without stable internet? High speed internet is a necessity! Seriously, it’s part of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. So after researching all kinds of mobile internet plans and asking my colleagues about their internet plans, the only worthy option was to get a wireless modem setup. Even though the installation would cost more but the monthly fee is actually the cheapest and internet is unlimited so it seems like a pretty good deal.
Okay, cool, I made my decision on installing a wireless modem at my apartment so I tried to look up on where to start, there was no email or online form that I could find so I called NTT about getting a subscription. Also btw, when a company in Japan states their call centres are available in English, 80% of the time it’s not entirely true. I am convinced people lie on their resumes to get the job, banking on not getting any English speaking customers. Never have I felt more useless being fluent in English than when I was in Japan. Anyway, they ask if I want to rent their modems or buy my own, apparently it doesn’t come with the package. I told them I’ll buy my own cause monthly fees would be cheaper and so they gave me the specs and they emphasize that if I get the wrong one it might not work. Great, another thing on my to-do list I have to add. Okay fine. And then they said they can start installation in 20 days.
20 days?? I already burned a week researching on internet plans, I gotta wait 3 more weeks? They mentioned something about the technician for my area being pretty busy and it was inevitable and I’m like fine whatever I have a few movies downloaded, I’ll keep myself busy. And then the next thing they said was something I never thought I would hear in my life.
"Please FAX a copy of your resident card and application to..."
FAX??? I asked if I could email it to them, and they said “No email, fax only.” I think my brain short-circuited a little. Tokyo, the land of autonomous robots and futuristic tech and I still need to fax my application? NTT is also not a shabby small company, they’re probably one of the biggest internet providers in Japan and yet they don’t even have an e-mail address? I just sat there gobsmacked. I have never faxed something in my 24 years of life. I asked my colleague where can I go to get something faxed, and she said I can go to any conveniance store for that service. I’m like, faxing is so common that you can do this at any convenience stores? Truth be told, I went to fax my application and it was actually not that bad. But faxing??? I get it if it was like company to company, but to expect users to fax something, that would never work in Malaysia.
Japanese are pragmatic, systematic, everything has order, but things don’t seem to change as much. I mean I kinda get it, if it ain’t broke amirite?
I fax my application, I go buy the modem on Amazon, it was freaking expensive like 7,000 yen (RM250) or something. At the time I just arrived so I was converting every pricetag to ringgit and really feeling how expensive things are but I was also paying for the installation which was 20,000 yen (RM750) so the whole thing was objectively expensive. I wait the three long internet-less week and finally the day comes where the NTT technician arrives to set things up. He doesn’t speak English so I try my best with my primitive Japanese to understand him and he says everything is okay, I just need to sign up and login using this CD that he hands me and he gives me the receipt that I have to pay at a convenience store.
Here’s the thing, I was using a 2015 macbook pro provided by my company and it does not have a CD player. I looked up all possible solutions online, the only way is to either buy a portable CD player for mac, or use a windows PC. First of all I am NOT spending any more money on this internet thing so option 1 was out of the gate. So I settled with option 2 and asking my colleagues if I can borrow a PC, but we all got the same models so noone has a PC. I also didn’t have any friends out of work so at this point it feels like I’m trying to get to freaking Mordor. The journey just would not end and I should just give up.
Luckily, somehow, the company hired a couple of interns who became my roomates and that was how I finally got a hold of a Windows PC and successfully finished the setup. Finally, after 36 days without internet, I claimed my victory. It truly is one of the worst user experience I ever had. As someone who wasn’t well versed with how things work in Japan, it was eye-opening. I thought it couldn’t get worse than that, turns out it was just the beginning.
The Great Passive Aggression
The Japanese language is a language filled with nuances. Even a simple word like ikimasu could mean like 10 different things (who is going? I am going? you are going?), and the only way for people to identify what it actually means would be to look at context and have a common understanding of what it normally means, so in this case, simply the one who needs to go is the one who is going.
There is an unspoken knowledge and agreement of the culture that is incorporated in the way they talk to one another that transcends the need for having more precision in their semantics. The more I look at it, it seems like an efficient thing. Who needs pronouns if you already know who’s doing it? But this creates a problem, a big one.
Japanese people never say what they actually want to say
When I got married, I had to move out of the company apartment and look for my own place. I contacted an English-speaking real estate agent who gave me a few apartment options. I was talking and showing to my colleague about these options and she felt like my options were quite expensive and the agency she went to for her apartment could possibly give me cheaper options. So she arranged an appointment for me and we both went to see the agent. My colleague did most of the talking cause she’s fluent in Japanese and I describe my specs and all and then he asks us to come again the next day to discuss the options.
The next day my colleague had some work so I went alone. He asks me if I could speak Japanese and I said no. Then he tries to like google translate what he wants to say, and he says “Because no speak nihongo, maybe not easy for house.”, and I’m like okay there might not be many options for me, and his options might not fit my criteria but I’m open for anything really. I say “Okay” and he starts to scratch his head, and he keeps typing in his google translate, and he says “if house problem, not easy.” and I’m like, if I have problem and want to speak to the landlord, I could just ask my colleague to help and communicate with them so I say “Okay” and he sighs.
For the record, it has been 30 minutes of him just trying to google translate things and all I’m understanding is that there are not many options for a foreigner and what he can give is the best that he could do. At this point he’s been huffing and puffing and scratching his head. It feels like I am missing something but I truly could not understand what he wasnt saying to me. His colleague come out and they exchange a conversation and then his friend starts trying to talk to me but it’s the same jumble of words in which I keep replying “Okay” to, cause I’ve learned to always say yes (Hai) in conversation.
I start feeling weird that it’s been so long and he’s not giving me any details of apartment options. I may not speak the language but i’ve looked at enough house ads to understand the key points. Plus, Google can translate photos now, I just need the pamphlets. Then something happens, he starts calling someone, and then he hands it to me. I talk to the other person and it was someone who could speak English. I thought oh great he called his friend so we can finally communciate.
She introduces herself as a real estate agent and that I can make an appointment with her and discuss the specs I want. That’s the point where it hit me, he was kicking me out. He didn’t want to deal with me at all. I was so confused, we were just dicussing things the day before, like why kick me out today? I try to speed up the phone conversation (again, a lot of “yes”s), and I finally get up to leave, his face lit like the sun. He gives me his business card with the phone number of the agent he called.
I felt so frustrated that night. Frustrated that I was turned down, that he couldn’t be more hostile or like “please leave kudasai”, anything really. I went back to the hostel I was staying feeling so defeated. Another night of not getting any progress in the house hunt. I was also alone while my husband was in Malaysia so I felt pretty lonely. I couldn’t believe it took me 40 minutes to finally pick up on that subtle nuance of him wanting me to get out. It was so… polite.
I remember my Intro to Management lecturer once shared an interesting story about a Korean Airline having a lot of plane crashes. Then, someone pointed out that the reason for it was because the pilot was “too polite”, that their emergency calls were so calm and collected that people receiving the distress calls did not fully understood the urgency of the situation. At the time I felt it was remarkable that a culture deep rooted in respect and politeness would have issues, let alone issues with such serious consequences. They’re so polite that in the brink of death, they still maintain that sense of calm and politeness.
You see, Japanese people are very non-confrontational. I remember working with Japanese developers and one guy asked me to fix something. He said “Please fix, no rush.” and I had already something else to do for the day so I didn’t do it. And then the next day he asked about it and I said “not yet”, and he said something about meeting with the client TODAY and he needs it fixed. He says this in a very calm manner and it’s really frustrating that the urgency of the matter was not communicated earlier. I would’ve shifted things around and prioritized it. Apprently “No rush” means “Not this exact moment but maybe in half an hour?”, which I would’ve been fine with if I knew about it.
Things can get real dark, real fast
One of the greatest thing about Japan is their public transport system. Especially in Tokyo, the rides are frequent, they’re reliable, they’re punctual and the coaches stops at exactly where they said they’d stop at. It’s a sardine can during peak hours but other than that, it’s generally great, they rarely have delays.
The only time there is a delay is if there was a) a natural disaster, or b) a suicide, in which case the delay takes a couple of hours before resuming because it happens so often you bet they have established a standard operation procedure to handle it in record time. Too many people need to be in too may places around Tokyo that the economy probably crashes if the train stops working.
This is reflected in their pop culture. Japanese movies are so tragic, it’s always a life death situation. If it ain’t fantasy, ain’t Godzilla, it’s a natural disaster. It’s almost as if the whole nation is coming to terms of trauma and tragedy that has happened to their country like world war, atomic bombs, nuclear disasters and not to mention the frequent earthquakes and occasional tsunamis, and ingraining them in pop culture is their way of coping with that grief.
Like I said, japanese aren’t big on communication, directly or indirectly.
When I got pregnant and went to the municipal office to get check-up coupons and stuff, I had to fill in a form and it had a bunch of questions on like how the pregnancy effects my life, if my financials are okay and if I had support post-birth, and one question really stuck with me.
Are you happy?
It’s such a weird thing to be asked on an official government form. I had a hard time wrapping around the implications of that question, but I do admit it’s a really important question to ask. I couldn’t help thinking about people coming in and answering “No” on that question being genuinely disheartened by the idea of having a child to take care for. And honestly, after researching about raising children in Tokyo, I immediately wanted to relocate back to Malaysia. Not necessarily because of the cost, but the freedom and flexibility and support I have in Malaysia.
At the time I felt trapped, I rely on my company for my visa and it didn’t leave me with any options, say if I wanted to take care of my baby, I couldn’t do that. Technically maternity leave is up to 2 years, but the payment is just a portion of my normal salary without any allowances that I heavily rely on to pay rent etc.
Even if we somehow managed to take care of childcare while I continue working, it seems a risky life to live. I just kept imagining being out of a job and living under the Shibuya bridge. It felt like that was possible somehow, heck, some people who live under the Shibuya bridge actually have corporate day jobs. The frequent suicides suddenly didn’t seem so outlandish anymore. I kind of get it now, and honestly I feel that I experienced burnout, from the heavy workload, the lack of communication, and the uncertain future lying ahead for my growing family. I cried in front of my boss and he absolutely freaked, it is apparently not quite Japanese culture.
At the time it just felt like if I were to be out of a job and relocate back to Malaysia, might as well do it with proper preparation. Salvage whatever furniture we wanted to bring back home and get rid of the rest (which is one big headache that I don’t want to get into right now), cancel the house contract, go to disneyland, claim my pension, and have absolutely no regrets.
I truly have no regrets. When I look back at my life in Japan, I don’t really miss anything in particular, probably the salary lol but the quality of life in Malaysia is great that it does not feel much of a loss. It was a great experience and it really made me more grateful with what I have in Malaysia (support system of family & friends, flexibility to pursue other interests, room to breathe) and it makes me feel… enough, which is a blessing in itself.