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The view outside my friend's place in Japan.

Recently I visited Tokyo for the first time in four years.  What was striking was not how much had changed, but how little.  The same music played in the train stations, the same celebrities were on TV, the same man kept the lines moving through immigration (I kid you not).  Even the green phones outside of Shinjuku East Exit were in the same place, which was fortunate for someone like me who did not have a workable cell phone there.

What also hasn’t changed is the Japanese mentality, which I sometimes think is better than the American mentality in regards to civility.  Over there, people think of others before themselves and of how what they say will affect other people before they say it.  Because of this, there can be some passive-aggressive nonsense when someone is called out on not following the rules (and for children, shame is too often used as a  means of controlling behavior), and you have to really pay attention to discover when someone is angry at you, but it also means that there’s less open conflict between people, at least in public.  With all the stress of planning for my trip and juggling several different tasks the week before, just being in Japan again put me at ease, and not only because I was on vacation.  Japan just feels more relaxed.  Even rush hour didn’t faze me, as rush hour is busy, but not rushed.  Working there is a slightly different story, but visiting Japan is one of the most relaxing things that one can do.

Still, things are changing.  Japan is slowly becoming more international, and more friendly towards foreign residents.  Alien registration cards will soon include less information on it for people outside of immigration or law enforcement, preventing discrimination based on soon-to-expire visas.  In the airport and on trains, announcements in Chinese have joined the ones currently spoken in Japanese and English.

As for the Japanese people, the sluggish economy means that lifetime employment is becoming less of a reality for the younger generation, and permanent work is becoming harder to find.  One of my friends thinks that Japan is losing its fighting spirit because young people in Japan are giving up on finding any sort of employment, while my Japanese friends under 25 years old are spending most of their time sending out applications and going to interviews.  For my friends over the age of 30, it’s even tougher to find work.  This, despite the fact that the yen is doing very well (82 yen to the dollar, as opposed to its average rate of 115 yen when I was last there, housing crisis excluded).  With that kind of money, I almost wish I were teaching over there now.

And what of the tsunami and its aftermath?  Tokyo is far enough away from Sendai to have not shared in its loss of life, and far enough away from Fukushima to be safe from radiation (despite alarmist reports in the first few months of the nuclear crisis), yet it felt the earthquake when it hit, and residents agreed to voluntary blackouts to conserve electricity when most of the reactors were shut down.  One of my friends in Japan, who is American, said that during the reactor crisis, he and some other foreign teachers spent a night drinking sake, deciding whether or not they should leave Tokyo for another Japanese city, farther away from Fukushima.  After their third bottle, they decided to stay.  There was no reason not to.  Japan is a functional country, possibly more functional than any other country out there, and Tokyo was in minimal danger.  Its federal government may be incompetent, but its people are not.  Or, as one newscaster put it (regarding Prime Minister Kan, who was prime minister during the disaster), “The brain is dead, but the body is still functioning.”  Surprisingly, he’s still on the air.

Not surprisingly, news of the disaster was treated differently in Japan than it was abroad.  In fact, foreign teachers who could understand Japanese stayed in Tokyo during the Fukushima disaster, while those who only understood English left the country.  This is because Western media sensationalized the disaster, while Japanese media downplayed it, with the truth lying somewhere in between.  In fact, I probably was exposed to more radiation on the plane ride over there than I was in Tokyo, so if you want to visit Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, Sapporo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Fukuoka, or any other city farther than 30 miles away from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, feel free to do so.

Since I did not travel outside of Tokyo, I did not visit other parts of Japan, even places that I didn’t get around to visiting the first time.  And while I did sing at karaoke, I didn’t go to any hot springs.  That will be rectified on my next visit.  Something else I might do on my next trip is visit the places where I lived and worked.  I felt it would be too bittersweet to stop in Musashi-Koganei and Kodaira on this visit (one doesn’t want to be melancholy for a wedding, after all), but just seeing Musashi-Koganei listed as a stop was enough for me to remember the emotions associated with living there.

As I end this entry, I realize I forgot to mention one other thing that hasn’t changed in regards to Japan: my friendships.  Some of my friends may speak less English than they did when I knew them, some more, but all of them who could met with me and wondered, as I did, how four years went by so fast.

Cherry blossoms in Koganei Park. April 4, 2006. Tokyo, Japan.

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