Archive for Alan

The Pain of Buying

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Living in a country where the people don’t speak your language is a very isolating experience. Suddenly simple everyday tasks such as ordering food at a counter become nerve wracking ordeals fraught with social peril. This is especially the case in a country such as Japan, where social customs are so important. There are patterns of behavior which are expected in so many situations, and deviating from these paths caused lots of trouble for the many flustered, inflexible Japanese people we met working in shops, restaurants, banks and post offices. Did you know that the Japanese language has an entirely different vocabulary in situations such as dealing with a fast-food register operator, because of the social hierarchy of the customer being “above” the employee? This is called “keigo”. The Japanese language has many honorifics, parts of speech which show respect, and their use is mandatory in many social situations. So not only is it difficult for foreigners such as myself to navigate their way through this seemingly endless minefield of faux pas due to their ignorance of the expected modes of behavior in a situation, even for those visitors who speak some Japanese they can still be screwed because customer service employees often seem to be speaking another language. They worked so hard to efface themselves in my presence and what they actually ended up doing was making it much harder for me not to cause them embarrassment when it was obvious I had no idea what they just said.

Ok, so this is a problem. But it isn’t an insurmountable one. Just pick up the vocab they are using, go away and study it, right? Then find out what the correct response is. Well…

Knowing the correct response doesn’t necessarily solve the problem, and in fact can fool the clerk into thinking that you can actually speak Japanese, eliciting another language puzzle. It’s like an onion: there are layers, and peeling each one back makes you cry.


Hamsters in Japan

Several years ago I was visiting my cool aunt in Japan during one of my holidays. As I was playing with her hamsters she mentioned to me a common problem with these cute little pets that many owners in Japan were facing: accidental death by BURYING THEM ALIVE. A particular breed of hamster, the Djungarian Hamsters, are from desert climates and are very weak against the cold, entering a hibernation-like state if the temperature drops too low… and Japanese winters get very cold. The critters are difficult to rouse once this happens, as it is not normal sleep, and many ignorant humans mistake the hamsters for dead. The owners, often children, would then dispose of the “corpse”, usually by burying them in a garden, unknowingly becoming responsible for their beloved pet’s death (I utilized the toilet flushing method in my comic, though not strictly accurate it was in the interests of comedy! Things are much funnier when they involve toilets, right?).

The Japanese pet situation is slightly different from what’s normal in Australia, and this is due mostly to the practicalities involved. Limited living space is a big issue, dictating the size of animals in all but the largest of houses. It is also relatively difficult to find leased properties that allow the keeping of pets, much more so than in Australia. It’s a distinct selling point for a house or apartment to offer their tenants the option. Given the limitations of space and how damned cute they are, the hamster is an excellent choice for a pet.

Did I mention they are cute? They are SO CUTE! If they were allowed in Australia I would keep one, no doubt. It is pretty great feeding the little guys an entire noodle of raw spaghetti because it’s similar to a Warner Bros. cartoon beaver chewing through a log like a wood chipper: you offer one end of the pasta to the hamster and it grabs it with two tiny pink hands, and in a second or two it is all gone. The hamster is like a black hole that sucks the whole thing in, instantly. And then it walks around with a pair of huge bulging mutant cheeks like nothing is the matter.

Still, they are a pretty stupid animal. I know this whole hibernation thing doesn’t count as stupidity, but it contributes to the image in my mind that these little guys are freakin’ dumb. There they are in an environment designed for their survival – unlimited food and water, an exercise wheel (luxury!), a cozy little burrow, NO PREDATORS – and they go ahead and mess it up. I imagine their survival strategies in the wild would go something like this:

The Meat of Japan

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So for those that do not know, the Japanese have slightly different priorities to the west when it comes to cooking meat. Generally in Australia the best meat has very little fat. Japanese meat is often cut in what would be considered unusual ways for us and contains much more fat, marbling the flesh. Personally I am a fan of Japanese meat: it is tender, juicy, and falls apart in your mouth. Ingrid is definitely not a fan, but we all know she is a racist!

I had a lot of fun explaining to my school kids how we eat kangaroo meat in Australia. They wouldn’t believe me. It actually took quite a lot of convincing, diagrams drawn on the board, and descriptions involving a generous helping of broad, expansive hand gestures (sell it, Alan, sell it!). Several different kids in different classes asked, “what part of the kangaroo do you eat?” and I would delight in telling them anything I felt like at the time. “Oh, the ears are the best” or “tail-steaks”. They were almost all of them so horrified. I mean, it’s not like I said something like “Just the Joey. We only ever eat the Joey”. I’m not sure if the fact that it is one of our national animals that made it so hard for them to accept the idea but the cuteness factor of the kangaroo certainly had a huge role to play. I decided to test this theory not because I am a sadistic bastard but purely in the interests of increasing the pool of general human knowledge. “Has anyone here eaten rabbit?”, I asked.

Bit of background information may be required at this point. Rabbits are very uncommon in modern Japanese cooking, at least in any part of the country I have ever been to. However the rabbit is very common in Japan as a pet, and in particular every elementary school I taught at kept a hatch full of rabbits as school pets. I think my descriptions of rabbit stew earned eternal hatred from some of the students, their little eyes burning holes in my back while I wrote English vocabulary throughout the rest of the semester. To their protests I simply replied, “But they’re SO GOOD!” with what I hoped was an innocent and wide-eyed expression.

Talking to them about kangaroo kebabs I was met with incredulity. Introducing rabbit stew into the conversation earned me their revulsion, but they no longer doubted the veracity of my tales of kangaroo meat. At the point where I earned a certain amount of cred was when I would start talking about koala steaks.

Taking out the Trash

No seriously, it was hard.

Imagine one day suddenly deciding to move to another country. Now imagine that you have to do it as soon as possible because you aren’t completely sure you’ll be safe in the event of an escalation in a nuclear catastrophe. I did it in three days.
It was kind of like going to the toilet super drunk. You have a clear idea of your goals: get out of the country/relieve the pressure in your bladder. But then when you go about the task you discover that thinigs aren’t as simple as you expected – you have to jump through hoops to cancel your lease / you need to excersise your motor skills and get that fly undone. You see the toilet bowl, it’s right there, but now you have to do all this stuff to actually do it? Damn.

Now imagine you are in a country where the toilet system is unfamiliar to you and totally weird (which by the way traditional Japanese toilets are). You can’t ask anyone for help because it’s embarrassing and anyway you don’t speak the language perfectly. In the act of awkwardly pulling off your jeans and squatting over that alien toilet you are acutely aware that you may be doing it wrong, and offending all kinds of customs in the process of trying to achieve your goal. But your goal is important and there is significant time pressure. You have to be the sort of person who will sacrifice social niceties in order to get what you want. You have to be the sort of person who, in the event that you can’t actually figure out how to use this damn toilet, pee outside the bowl.

I did that – I did some things I really didn’t want to do and inconvenience some innocent Japanese people in order to leave the country as soon as possible. I left my employer in the lurch by cutting my contract. It was sad but I dumped our faithful bicycles in a public area, becuase there was no other way.

In Japan they have an idiotic trash seperation/collection system. Certain kinds of garbage must be sorted into categories and only certain kinds of garbage can be collected on specific days. Sounds good, you say? Sounds environmentally conscious or something? Well I say “idiotic” because while the Japanese are seemingly unanimous as to the importance of properly disposing of one’s own trash, when asked what the purpose of this strict system of categorisation and seperation is no one can offer an answer. Is it recycling? Who knows. Why are plastic bags sometimes considered “Burnable” trash? No answer can be given. People are very willing to talk self-righteously about the social responsibility of garbage disposal without actually knowing why. Not only this but since the collection days for garbage are set and you can only throw out your trash little by little over the course of a week, in a tiny Japanese apartment you are left with a significant pile of trash (often containing rotting foodstuffs) that you cannot throw out when you need to. If you do throw it out early then be prepared to face the anger of your neighbours. In our case because we lived in an apartment block filled with foreigners, we had regular problems with tenants not disposing of their garbage on the proper day and thus rotting garbage sat outside our block for days, sometimes strewn across the street. In the last couple of months in our stay we had a recurring problem where our bicycles were vandalised and the air in the tires were let out, the caps for the airtube stolen. This was almost certainly a neighbourhood retaliation for the garbage problem.

I am the sort of person who loathes inconveniencing strangers, especially if they are Japanese. Being half Japanese myself I know just enough about the culture to know how much i don’t know, and that I am in constant danger of committing a terrible disservice to those around me with my gaijin ways. For the most part the Japanese are extremely generous regarding foreigner faux pas but this doesn’t serve to make me feel any better about putting my foot in it.

Social Blunder

So it was with a great deal of nervousness that I discovered, given the time pressure, I could not PROPERLY dispose of certain articles of trash left in my apartment, one of them being an inconveniently long metal laundry pole. I’d been informed by my employer that if any trash was left in the apartment upon my leaving then the real estate company would charge large sums of money, hundreds of dollars, to dispose of it themselves – regardless of the size or the amount of trash. Considering we had already lost thousands in our desperate scramble to leave the country this was not something I could afford to have happen. I regarded the offending object with fear and hatred, and wracked my brain for an answer to the problem at hand. Dumping the bicycles was heartbreaking, but also physically easy: I rode them, one by one and on seperate days, to a bike parking lot and just left them there. Totally inconspicuous.

Totally inconspicuous.

Getting rid of this damn laundry pole on the other hand could land me in some significant trouble. I had no idea what the penalty was for dumping trash in Japan but considering The Law’s scarily draconian attitudes towards gaijin transgressors in the past, I didn’t want to risk being spotted and I kind of had no clue where an appropriate dumping ground would be anyway. I had to be careful about this. I had to be… smooth. That’s when I had this brilliant idea.

Ingrid and I had witnessed our next door neighbour fleeing the country a few days prior. His balcony was possibly within reaching distance from ours. They weren’t exactly real balconies: they were tiny cramped affairs specifically for housing the air conditioner and for hanging laundry, so I was sort of afraid the whole thing would collapse under my weight. When I dropped the pole with a loud CLANG I couldn’t hurry back inside: Since my weight on the balcony was a problem I had to escape veeeery sloooowly, and then I had to climb awkwardly back into the window. So that is what I did, in the freezing cold of a Japanese winter, trying to be as quiet as possible and hoping I wouldn’t be spotted, during a blackout in Omiya.

Crisis Continued


The Zombie Apocalypse would be more fun. At least that’s what computer games tell me!

So, we’re preparing for more earthquake craziness by getting together some canned food, bottled water, and putting it all into a bag with some clothes in case we have to dash out of the house in a hurry. That’s what we were doing over the weekend, but now we’re less worried about another earthquake and more worried about impending nuclear disaster.

It’s been a crazy up-and-down state of near panic for us. Information is difficult to come by and what we find out often seems to conflict other sources. For instance, when we first found of about the nuclear power plant it was through the Japanese media, and it SEEMED as if we didn’t have to worry about a meltdown for the time being, and only the poor people still within the 30 km evac radius had to be scared.

However even the English media sources don’t seem to be discussing the worst case scenario. Now what I mean by that is not “how the reactor will melt down”, but what this will mean for the populace. Looking into the Chernobyl disaster, 30 km is just not enough distance, and even where we are (about 200 km from the site) it seems as if we are still at risk of enough poisoning that it can cause thyroid cancer.

I called the Australian embassy in Tokyo last night, to find out what I could. They told me that according to their current information the radiation was adequately contained and there’s no official policy regarding getting Australians who are currently in Japan back home.

Feeling generally pretty weird about having to go into work today, business as usual, Ingrid and I got to the train station to discover that the trains weren’t running. Like, ALL of them, excepting the shinkansen. Hundreds of Japanese workers and students milling around with no place to go. We were advised to go home by our area managers and that is why I am typing away at home right now. There seems to be no information available as to why the trains aren’t running, which is worrying, but that may just be because we are foreigners and information is much harder for us to get, let alone understand. Or it may be because the power plant is about to melt down. Who can say!

I’m pretty pissed off about the lack of information being provided to citizens regarding an uncontained melt down scenario and the media in general, and I figure it’s because of wanting to reduce panic. There was a lukewarm 2 minute segment on one of the morning shows today about some advice regarding avoiding radiation poisoning. Seriously, is that it? If you’re saying anything about it at all it means it’s a distinct possibility. If it’s a distinct possibility then shouldn’t you be devoting more time to educating the citizens to ensure their health and safety, and not on endless repeated footage of the earthquake and touching human stories regarding survival and loss?

Ingrid and I are at the stage of seriously considering returning home. This is pretty complicated as it would mean breaking our contracts, and organising an intercontinental move on such short notice is going to be a massive pain in the arse. Still, would you prefer cancer? Tough choice!

“Outsider Person”

I’ve visited Japan on multiple occasions, making an effort to travel here at least once every three years since I was seventeen. It’s no secret to my friends that I love this country, and it’s been a dream of mine to live here. Now that dream is being realised I’d like to share with you my experiences –  not only the awesome aspects of Japan, but also the terrible stuff that you are likely to encounter only if you settle down to live in The Land of The Rising Sun.

Let me talk about what it’s like to move to this country. Basically, it’s messy. Until the last moment I was frantically scrabbling to get everything done before the big move. Unfortunately a lot of the unessentials had to be overlooked due to time pressure (such as saying goodbye to many of our friends).  Even for someone significantly more organised than myself I’m sure it would prove to be a daunting task, as there is so much that needs planning, doing, and keeping track of. The consequences of being lax can be really, really annoying. For instance, on the plane to Tokyo I had a terrifying moment when I thought I had left my luggage key behind in Australia. Can you imagine what that would be like? Arriving in a strange country and the first thing I’d have to do would be figure out how to bust open my very sturdy hard plastic travel case, with the likelihood of it becoming useless after such an act. The stress of the uncertainty of moving to another country is definitely not something to take lightly and was the cause of many minor panic attacks during the first month here in Japan. I recommend not suffering from any kind of nervous or anxiety producing condition!

A lot of our problems could have been solved easily if we’d simply had enough money to make them go away. Problems such as packing limitations (I had 10 kilograms to pack my entire life into, man), booking more convenient and comfortable accommodation, and an absence of peace of mind can all be solved with a wallet stuffed full of 10,000 yen notes. We were hardly unprepared when it came to the bankbook but it always felt like we were struggling to get by and that we made compromises at every step. If you’re planning on going it like we did , kind of hard but not *too* rough, arrive in japan with $7000 AUD to spare, per person. You might be able to do it with less but I wouldn’t recommend it. In three months Ingrid and I have spent more than $10000! This is all to do with setup costs.

Of course setting up a new home anywhere is an expensive venture, but Lady Japan can be a frigid bitch who is especially cruel to the new arrival. Firstly, there is “key money” to consider. On top of many unfamiliar costs involved in renting out an apartment here (such as several different kinds of insurance, a fee to change the lock, a “management fee”, and a “guarantor company fee”, whatever the hell that is) there is “key money”. Gaijin residents dread key money and try to avoid it at all costs. It is considered by the gaijin community to be an utterly ridiculous custom that is particularly difficult for foreigners to deal with. It is essentially a significant bribe to the landlord, a non-refundable deposit, a “thank you SO MUCH for letting me live in this place!”. Luckily our apartment did not also include an actual deposit, which many places do. It is difficult for foreigners because a) we do a lot of moving around and so have to pay key money each time and b) we’re typically strapped for cash due to the sorts of jobs we can work or the fact that we have only just arrived.  Let me also say that once you move out of a place here you are required to fork out a “cleaning fee” worth several hundred dollars. All in all, moving into our permanent residence hit us with an upfront fee of $3,600 AUD.

Issues of money aside, Japan presents difficulties to the foreign resident in other respects. Next to consider is the 外国人登録 (Gaikokujintouroku), or “Alien Registration”. It is a process all prospective foreigner residents must undergo in addition to obtaining a VISA. Upon arrival in the country, foreigners have 90 days in order to fill out the necessary paperwork to receive their very own 外国人登録証明書 (Gaikokujintohrokushoumeisho), something the expat community calls the “gaijin card”, with an element of bitter humour. This is an official identification card that gaijin residents are required to have on hand at all times. Failure to present the document to police or a government official upon request may result in arrest and deportation. Failure to obtain a gaijin card within the specified period of time may also result in arrest and deportation. The card is also required for virtually any instance in which the holder fills out paperwork, such as when buying a mobile phone (and strangely, when buying a bicycle).

Now for such an important document (that relates specifically to foreigners) one might expect some support by way of government employees that speak a foreign language, or at the least forms that are written in English and may be filled out in English. However helpful that may be the reality is that neither option is available. Foreigners must do the best they can with whatever means they have at their disposal, such as hand signals and broken Japanese. The incomprehensible nature of Japanese bureaucracy is worthy of a post all of its own. Maybe later, when my bile reserves reach their upper limit…

So why go through all this shit if it’s so much trouble, you ask? I suppose this post has been concentrating pretty heavily on the bad stuff involved in setting up. In order to illustrate the positives of life in Japan, for my next post I’m going to talk about the AWESOME ADVENTURES of ALAN and PERCY in WONDERRAND!

Goodnight, Dear Reader, and may you experience pleasant dreams in lands where the people have varied  colours of hair…