I didn’t do much the past few days, but still collected quite a lot of stories to tell. None of the stories below that are related to Japanese culture were a surprise to me, which confirms my suspicion that my preparation for this trip was actually reasonably good – save for the language.
I’ve mainly spent my going-out-time at Bar This Way and The Gael. I think I’m going to stick to clubs that the Lonely Planet recommends, you’ll understand why if you keep reading.
At The Gael I had a conversation with Noriko Ansell, someone we may have seen on BBC documentaries on Japan. She explained to me the reason why the Netherlands were the only country that were allowed to trade with Japan 400 years ago. And it may also explain why we’re known to be greedy and cheap: We were the only country that agreed not to bring Christianity to Japan. We were like: “You don’t want Christianity? Oh, but you’ve got money?…. Nooo of course we don’t care that much about Christianity! .. Want to trade?” Also, Philipp Franz Von Siebold, a Dutch doctor, was the first Dutch doctor in Japan and his daughter (half Dutch, half Japanese) was the first female doctor in Japan. Apparently, Von Siebold was exhiled from Japan after having made a trip to The Netherlands while taking a Japanese map with him, which was prohibited at the time (for fear of invasions by enemies). You can read an interesting article HERE.
Remember when I said that at the Disaster Center I didn’t think that the ground would move that way (swaying instead of going up and down)? I was wrong. Noriko told me that when an earthquake happens and the ground is going up and down, then the earthquake is happening underneath you. If the ground is going back and forth, then it’s happening further away. Of course, it will still not move as smoothly, but the direction of movement at the Disaster Center was not weird, it corresponds to the situation of an earthquake happening further away.
I also learned that during the 1991 earthquake in Kobe, all of Japan helped by taking friends and family into their homes, and stores would give you anything for free if you car license plate was from Kobe. Also, during 911, people who were stuck in Japan would get a 10% price at hotels upon showing their ticket. Read that again. I’m not talking about a 10% discount, no, they would pay only 10% of the price. Of course, the hotel would hope that when these people ever returned to Japan, they would want to stay at their hotel. But, still, I really like these stories of Japanese hospitality and generosity.
That night, there was an open mic night. I asked the pianist if he knew some songs, but he didn’t. It wasn’t until I left that I saw there actually was a binder with music they knew, too bad I didn’t see it sooner.
When you ask how someone is doing, you ask “O’genki des ka?”. Like in The Netherlands, you’re not supposed to answer seriously. However, in the Netherlands, every now and then someone will answer “Mwoah” or tell you something that happened that day and that’s okay. But in Japan, it’s a no go. You just reply “Genki des” and that’s it. So, when Aka (nickname of a Japanese girl at The Gael) went to England, she was quite shocked when someone replied with a story of what happened to them that day.
Some other things on greetings: When you leave the house, you’re supposed to say “ittekimas”, which literally means “I’m going”. People will then respond with “itterasshai” which literally means “Please go and come back”. Last Thursday someone said “itterasshai” to me out of the blue and I was too slow to figure out what she said, but later I realized what it was. Friday morning, I explained to her that “yesterday not understand, but today understand” (in my best Japanese of course 😉 ) and said “ittekimas” again. She then happily replied “itterasshai” and said that my Japanese was very good and I responded – without thinking – “thank you”. That’s what you do, right? Someone just went through the trouble of complimenting you and you’re not supposed to deny it because that would be awkward for both of you; denying it means you’re basically forcing the other to repeat the compliment. My rule of thumb in NL: Accept the compliment and thank them for it. But later I realized that in Japan, this may not be the right way to do things. I think I was supposed to say “no, no, not at all”, showing modesty.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m still Dutch and I’ll thank people if they give me a compliment. I’m just comparing stuff right now.
Yesterday, I went to the Pig and Whistle to eat something and then watched three people play some Jazz. There was a student there, with a chemistry book in front of him and a glass of water, studying while listening. After a while I asked him something (I asked “Why are you studying at a bar?” even though I know it’s quite common) only to discover that his English was horrible. He asked me if I wanted to go to a party in Osaka today, organized by whynotjapan. Fortunately, I’ve read enough about this to know not to go there.
I went to Bar This Way and ended up talking about that with Ben, a guy from Boston. He confirmed my thoughts: The guy wanted to show up with me as a trophy, me being European, blond haired and therefore by definition interesting. These parties are mostly for Japanese girls to pick up foreigners, often succesfully, and for Japanese guys to try and pick up a girl (foreign or Japanese), most of the time unsuccesfully. Image is everything here (in Japan), and if you can show up with something special, like a Maiko (Geisha in training) or, a European girl, Japanese girls will find you interesting – this seems to be the local train of thought. Ben nicely put it like this “This one’s blond. Did you see that? I brought a BLOND girl.”
It also has to do with the fact that Japanese girls find foreigners immensely interesting and attractive and Japanese guys are very frustrated with that. Of course, Japanese men are also interested in foreigners, there are apparently many frustrated, single Japanese women who feel that they look “too Japanese”; in order to be interesting to men, they need to look more foreign / exotic.
Furthermore, Ben told me that a lot of foreign men come to Japan for the women; they have the impression that Japanese women are easy. While that may be true in some sense (they’re very much interested in foreigners), he also told me a story of a Japanese woman marrying a German guy who seemed very rich, influential and important. That happens to you if you’re a foreigner in Japan; because you’re less sensitive to social cues, you can get away with just about anything and you can get the feeling that you’re very special and Japanese will treat you as such as well. However, she found out when moving to Germany that he wasn’t really that important nor interesting, he was just some low-life schmuck who hadn’t been able to get a woman back home and tried it in Japan. She felt humiliated and was offended by this, so she divorced him and moved back to Japan, telling all her friends about foreign men. Not that this story changed a lot of things; Japanese are still very much interested in foreigners. But maybe they’ll learn not to take everything at face value.
I’ve had a lot of occasions by now of people staring at me. I’m not fed up with it (yet), but I don’t rule out the possibility of buying a scarf to cover my hair sometime, for example if I ever decide to go to a real Japanese club. For now, I’m sticking with the foreigner-approved places. I enjoy myself there (conversations in English are a must) and foreigners or people who have been abroad have lots of interesting stories, as you have just been able to read. Also, these people won’t strike up conversation because I’m foreign. Some Japanese fellow said in the elevator that he’d seen me before and sat down next to me at the bar. Maybe he felt that there should be some connection after having stated that he’d seen me, I don’t know. It was awkward. So I ended up talking to the guy from Boston, who turned out to be a great storyteller.
A different story that I picked up: In Japan there are certain ways of doing things and it seems as if actions create some sort of long-term effect. If you give somebody something, it’s normal that the favor is returned sometime. I heard about someone who received an expensive gift from a friend in the Yakuza (Japanese mafia, apparently people here do not hide it if they are Yakuza). He said that he had to “give something back. Quick!” to cancel out the created obligation. Otherwise, his friend might be at his doorstep sometime, requesting a favor in return and you never know what kind of favor it’s going to be. The gift-giving had been going on for three years now and he had managed to cancel each gift out with a gift of his own so far.
On the topic of Yakuza, apparently they keep some sort of order in Japan as well by keeping drugs and prostitution low. Furthermore, they keep crimes to themselves. For those who have read it: I’ve gotten the impression that it very much resembles the murderer’s guild in Terry Pratchett’s discworld stories. (Have you read the first two books yet, Mariska? 😛 )
Last but not least: It hasn’t been below 20 degrees Celcius here for days. It has rained, but it was still warm. Just to be safe, i put my contact lenses in the refrigerator. I know the bottles say “keep at room temperature”, but if I have to choose between refrigerator and a room that reaches over 25 degrees Celcius at noon, I’ll take my chances with the fridge.
To everyone who’s reading this: Thank you very much! 🙂