Two years ago today, we have arrived in Japan. It seems a fitting moment to take stock: what has my life been like in these two years and how has it changed over time?
Of course, after two years, the initial amazement and wonder has subsided. But my image of Japan has become richer in details since.
How do we manage the practical issues of daily life?
On the whole, we manage just fine. Of course there are still language issues. One main problem is the availability of useful information online. English resources about things going beyond those directly intended for the Western tourist and the bare fundamentals are rather scarce. You want to find a hiking trail, a local bus schedule or weather forecast, a certain specialty shop, or go to the cinema? You better learn to google in Japanese. It’s not as hard as it might sound, and google translate is definitely your friend. Yet I still sometimes feel frustration about not being able to come by the information I am looking for.
What do we enjoy best here in Japan?
Once we had figured out the necessities, we started traveling Japan, either for work or just for fun, on day trips, or over a long weekend or so. These have been the most rewarding experiences. Japan is a great country to travel. For someone from Europe or the United States, Japan is about as exotic and interesting as it can get, but without the need to give up the comfort and safety of civilization. Everything is well organized, public transportation is great, no food safety or other safety issues to worry about. [It is true that my husband's bicycle got stolen, but this case stands against all the instances when I left my own bike unlocked and always found it at the same spot, not counting the two times we left my photo equipment on a train and got it back untouched. And after three months, we actually got the bike back. The police had found it and brought it to IPMU for us.]
And Japan is full of natural and cultural sights that are hard to find in other parts of the world. In the cultural part, I am thinking of shrines, temples, giant Buddhas, castles and Japanese gardens; for the natural sights I am thinking of active volcanoes, boiling hells, lava caves and waterfalls.
On hikes and at more remote sights, it was also easier to come across unstressed and friendly individuals who offered us food and a chat.
My advice to people who spend some time in Japan is, travel, by all means, as much as you can.
How about the cultural differences?
After two years, I can appreciate the cultural differences better. When we arrived, I just tried to be on my best behavior and to smile a lot, hoping that if I nonetheless infringed on the Japanese social code, people would at least give me credit for the effort. Now I understand for example that since we Westerners have not been conditioned to suppress the display of any negative emotion under all circumstances, we are ticking time bombs here. The social intercourse with us is fraught with the risk of ending in a highly embarrassing unpleasant outbreak.
Even though the Japanese social code implies a stronger limitation on the expression of the individual, I do recognize its advantages. Isn’t it more pleasant to live in a world, where no loud word ever erupts, no insults or arguments are ever witnessed? Where people whose personal space is massively invaded as they are being pushed and shoved by a relentless crowd bent on not missing their morning train do not bat an eye? Where these inconveniences are being borne patiently and stoically and the faces remain devoid of expression, regardless of the briefcase in their kidneys and the high heel on their toes.
For all the smoothness of public affairs, there is a drawback on the personal level that is difficult to get used to: even after many months, it is sometimes difficult to tell whether a person likes or dislikes you. All you ever get to see is a facade that offers no clue. While that’s perfectly fine in the case of a salesperson who serves you as a customer, it is a little disconcerting in the case of a colleague you meet every day.
Has the stay in Japan changed me?
Living in Japan has definitely changed my point of view in many ways. I now live in a world where China is close by and the West is far. I live in a different environment, one where there is a constant threat of earthquakes, where there are typhoons, where in summer I only wear flip-flops for three months in a row and instead of announcing on the radio when the temperature exceeds 30 degrees, you count the days when it is lower than 30. A different environment leads to different experiences, and our experiences shape us. Immersed in a different society, different things become important. I learned to pay more attention to the seasons and the plants associated to them, I learned to appreciate local food specialties. Of course I cannot undo my growing up in the Western culture, but I can realize that many conventions we learn to take as a given are really just one possible choice out of many. I question many customs and habits now. Now that I see different alternatives, I can choose consciously for myself which ones I want to adopt, instead of blindly accepting what chance has bestowed on me.
Living for an extended time in a different culture is definitely a huge chance for a critical assessment of one’s choices in life. A few months are not enough. During my first year, I have seen and tried many things, but I feel I was really stuck on the very surface.
I wonder what my third year will bring. I am really looking forward to it and I already have a long list of things to do and places to visit.