When you first walk into a Japanese house, you will notice you are in a small area lower than the house floor. This area is called the `genkan' and is where you remove your shoes. The idea is to step out of your shoes onto the house floor, don't step back onto the genkan floor or you will make your socks dirty. If you know the hosts well, it is fine to sit on the house floor and undo your laces, though you may find lace-free shoes more convenient. I use laced shoes but wear them loose! If you do wear laced shoes, why not try loosening them and tying a loose bow before you knock on the door? Then you will be able to make a very professional entrance to the house without fiddling with your laces.
A host will provide slippers, these will almost certainly be too small for men and if they are ludicrously uncomfortable it is fine to politely refuse them. I always do. If you are to enter a tatami room, you must remove your slippers anyway and just have stockinged feet. This is why it is important not to step on the lower part of the genkan in your socks. Tatami mats are about 4.5cm thick, 180cm x 90cm rectangles of igusa straw with a very fine weaved straw cover. They are very comfortable to sit on or sleep on in a futon. The `futons' you can buy in Australia are nothing like Japanese futon!
Many houses now have part-Western, part traditional Japanese rooms, and there is every chance you will be offered a sofa to sit on. It is not that unusual to have an ordinary chair in a tatami room but people usually sit on the floor or on cushions.
For bath time (O-furo) you must soap and rinse yourself thoroughly outside the bath while sitting on a little stool, and then only when you are completely rinsed can you enter the bath, which is really used just to warm you up and relax. Never use soap in the bath. The same bath water is used by all so don't pull the plug out.
There are two kinds of toilet, the Western style and the squat (similar to those in parts of Europe). Most city houses have Western style nowadays, but in the countryside there are more squats. The university will have both types available. It doesn't take long to get used to squatting!
Golden rule: be adventurous. Japanese don't really go for ready-made foods as much as in other countries (USA for example). Most Japanese go to the market every day. This is as much out of necessity (lack of space) as in the desire for fresh food. The wife of one American researcher at Tsukuba complained that Japan was very primitive because she couldn't find anything to cook. It turned out that she had spent her whole life in the US going to the supermarket freezer and pulling out TV dinners for her family. In Japan, you must really cook! Japanese food is very healthy indeed. You may find prices high compared to your home country. My advice is don't compare but see how your food bill compares to your Japanese yen salary. Inflation in Japan has been very low for many years and prices have moved little. In 1980 there were 300 yen to the Australian dollar, but now only about 100 yen. So ten years ago Japan seemed cheap.
At the supermarket even a small knowledge of the Japanese syllabaries (Kana) will come in handy, although there will be many mysterious things. When I was first in Japan as a language student I tried many things, but got stomach-ache only once, from eating a seaweed that should have been used as a soup stock. I thought it had been rather tough to chew!
Rice is an interesting subject in Japan. The Japanese government refuses to import rice from the US for some good reasons. Japan is very limited in natural resources, and it is not about to give up its independence on its basic staple and become dependent on the fickle US for such a basic commodity. In the past this had certain disadvantages for the Japanese people. The Government once decreed that there should be at least a one-year supply of rice in case of emergencies, so Japanese people were always eating old rice, because the new rice went into store and out came the previous year's crop. This is not delicious at all. Nowadays, while Japan still has at least a one-year stockpile of rice, new rice is easily available and only a little more expensive than the old rice. Nowadays semi-polished rice is becoming very popular, and it is not hard to find brown rice. You can distinguish semi-polished rice because it has a small white spot on the grain. I recommend you buy a rice cooker.
In Tokyo you can find shops that specialise in foreign food for foreigners, but at a price. If you really must have your daily bran, bring it with you from your home country.
Most shoe stores go up to a maximum of 28cm (about European size 44, British size 9.5) for men, which makes it very difficult to buy shoes for most Europeans. You will also find this limit at ski hire shops for ski boots. If you are an exceptionally tall or large person, you may have trouble getting clothes. For a comparison, I am a small size in Canada, a medium in the UK and Australia, but a large in Japan!
As for other things, I am still amazed whenever I go to some districts of Tokyo and see the incredible range of goods for sale. Some districts specialise: eg Akihabara for electrical and electronic things and Kanda for books, but department stores such as Keio, Mitsukoshi, Odakyu, Seibu, Takashimaya, Tokyu and Wako have a superb variety of goods. It seems there is nothing you cannot buy. Go to the Wako department store in Ginza and see Y2,000,000 - Y10,000,000 watches in an ordinary display cabinet.
The January Sales just after New Year are a bargain bonanza. Especially popular are department store `Lucky Bags' that generally range in price from Y5,000 to Y100,000, though some are much more! The Lucky Bags are sealed so that the purchaser has no idea what is inside except that they are clothes if in the clothes department, and so on. The price label value of the goods inside the bags is usually three or four times the price paid, and most purchasers are happy to accept a few wrong sizes (which go to relatives anyway). One famous children's clothing store called Familiar has Lucky Bags according to age and sex, and are super bargains.
Nowadays there are increasing numbers of flea markets in Japan, usually held on Sundays. They are a great source of interesting souvenirs, cheap clothing and practical goods. If you have a growing family, look out for kindergarten fund-raising bazaars, which sell second-hand children's clothing at extraordinarily low prices. There are also certain times of the year when people throw out their big junk (sodai gomi). Japanese tend to throw out things that are only slightly worn out, and electrical things are often in excellent working order. If you look around in your local area at these times you may be able to pick up a good rice cooker for example. New Year is also a big cleanout time in Japan. If you don't know when to look out for sodai gomi, ask your neighbours "sodai gomi no hi wa, itsu des'ka".
In Tokyo, the Garbage Department has five recycle depots. At these places they have all kinds of sodai gomi displayed and they check that anything mechanical or electrical works properly. If you want something, you can put your name down and at the end of the month a lottery is drawn for each item, and the winner gets it free. Thus, if you are prepared to wait you can obtain some items for nothing (if you are in luck) and it can save you wandering around the district like a vulture!
The main department stores generally open from 10.00 am to 7.00 pm, six days per week. They close one day in the week, but on different days to each other so that there is always a big store to go to every day. All stores are open on Sunday. Local markets and small supermarkets often open earlier and close later than the department stores. There are also some 24-hour stores.
The Co-op usually delivers once a week, they have retail outlets in only very few places. You can easily join for a small fee. Ask your neighbours or friends. They sell great solid bread which is much better than the airy fairy stuff in the supermarket. The Co-op people choose many things that have been grown without insecticide spraying etc. They are very careful to get the best things and so sometimes the price is a little higher. They sell very good quality rice, and great potatoes from Hokkaido. You must order once a week, but two weeks in advance. The local Co-op members take it in turn to receive all the local members' goods, who come to that house to collect them. Its certainly a good way to get to know your neighbours.
It is not as expensive as you might imagine, but expect high prices if you walk into classy restaurants in Ginza. Some of the best places to eat at reasonable prices are in the department stores, usually located on one of the upper floors. There are great noodle shops everywhere, and even in the back streets of Ginza you can find a cheap place to eat. At noodle shops please slurp with gusto! Most eating places are small and cosy and have quite realistic plastic models (with prices) of their main dishes on display outside, so you can see what they sell without knowing any Japanese and without having to enter first. At worst, you can lead the waiter or waitress outside and point to what you want, as I did many times before I learnt Japanese. They certainly won't mind. The institution food halls where you work will be cheap because they are subsidised.
If you are in a large city and you must commute to work, it is much cheaper to buy a monthly or three-monthly pass, called teikiken. The Tokyo rush hour is very bad at certain times. As most office workers don't start particularly early, the best times are around 7.30 - 8.00am or after 10.00am. If you travel away from the direction of the city in the morning it should be less packed. Be careful not to get jammed in so far that you can't get out at your stop. If you need to, say lots of excuse me's (sumi masen) and push quite hard. At major stops, there is usually a huge exodus of people, so it is either easier to get out or to get a seat if you are continuing on. Most of the jamming occurs as people try to get on just as the doors are closing, so for slightly more room move away from the door area. A lady friend of mine said that there are some advantages to the packed trains because once the doors are shut she can let go of her shopping and it stays suspended there until the next stop!
All train stations have their names in Roman form on the platform, though the maps outside unfortunately don't. Each station has the next and last station names written up, with arrows pointing the way the train will go, and the train guard announces the next station over the loudspeaker system. It is thus really difficult to get lost, but if you do, anyone will bend over backwards to help you. If you know where you want to go but can't figure out the price of the ticket from the tables on the wall, just buy the cheapest ticket from the machine and have it adjusted at the fare adjustment office (seisanjo) at your destination. However, in Tokyo there are now many totally automatic stations with machines that allow you entrance and exit, and where it is better to have the correct ticket for exiting without problem.
It is not uncommon for women to be fondled on packed trains, though I don't know if foreign women are subjected to this kind of abuse.
Unfortunately, as in most countries, there is no provision for disabled people, and you will need to be reasonably fit as there are lots of stairs to climb up and down.
Many people use the bicycle in Japan, and there is a lot of problem with bicycle parking, especially near train stations. Abandoned bicycles exacerbate this. In Tokyo and other large cities and towns, people tend to cycle on the footpath because the roads are so busy. Many small roads have no footpath at all, so if you cycle be especially careful. Taxi drivers tend to have little regard for cyclists and definitely won't give way to you. Even if the other person is at fault, it is better to give way than have a nasty accident. Motor scooter riders also often use the footpath, though it is illegal for them to do so. Many Japanese cycle on the wrong side of the road; don't let them force you out onto the crown of the road, make them go around you, because at least they can see the cars coming. In crowded places, cars will often pass you very closely, so please beware. Bicycle theft is one of the few crimes that you must be aware of, and if you have a good bicycle I recommend a strong lock and chain.
Bicycles can be rented at about twenty JNR (Japan National Railway) stations (half of these all-year-round) at reasonable rates. A list of these can be found in the Baedeker's Japan tourist guide and of course at any JNR, TIC or `i' office.
If you have school-age children, then you will have to send them either to the local school or to one that specialises in foreign children (expensive). Some schools have special facilities for non-Japanese and you can get a list of these schools from the local Ward Office. Going to a local school can be an exciting time for kids if they have a positive attitude. Foreign children are very popular because they are different. It is very likely they will need a uniform. Schools often have silly regulations. For example in Tsukuba the local high school wouldn't allow girls to use racing style bicycles to school because it was `unbecoming', but for boys it was fine. Schools usually play loud music for the children to exercise to, especially primary schools. It is always too loud. I have heard a primary school from several kilometres away. Very often local residents complain and can get irate, so don't think you are the only one who wants peace and quiet.
Many Japanese seem to have a fascination for loud-hailers, and use them at all opportunities. In fact, Japan can be very noisy. I have even seen a primary school teacher in the playground talking through a loud-hailer to a group of about ten small children sitting around him. Probably so he could be heard above all the other loud-hailers! In Tsukuba, the local meat market used to advertise by loud-hailer from a small plane that cruised over the tree tops, often at 8.00 am on Sunday mornings (Sunday is shopping day). I often mused about shooting the damn thing down, but did derive some satisfaction from abusing it at the top of my voice.
The Japanese are very mild-mannered, and Japan is probably the safest country in the world. I'm not saying violence doesn't occur, but it is so rare as to be discounted. You will never need to be afraid. When I was visiting Japan in 1991, a vandalised telephone was a main news item on the 7.00 pm news. That gives you an idea of how infrequently such things happen.
This passiveness is very much a reflection of their ordered society. It is likely that the low incidence of violence and general mayhem has its foundations in a time when the whole family was punished for one member's misdemeanour. Even now, if one member of a family is guilty of a serious crime, the whole family can be ostracised by society. In 1989, a young man murdered several young children. Although he had personality problems and was a little peculiar, it was such an awful thing that no-one could possibly forgive him for it. His father was a printer, so he lost all his customers and would never get any more. One of the children was killed on their property, so they will never be able to sell it. The two sisters would never be able to marry. I heard that one had moved far away and changed her name, so she may have a chance for a new life. Thus, in any wrongful act in Japan, a person must consider not only the consequences to self, but also to family, and this probably keeps crime on a low scale. I like to think that the very high level of education is a contributory factor.
Of course, you must have heard of the Japanese gangsters, the Yakuza. They are not nice, though most are a nuisance rather than really dangerous. They do have one `good' function though: they keep wayward youths off the streets by recruiting them and giving them a `purpose' in life.
Generally, people don't stand too close to each other when conversing, unless it can't be helped in a crowded place. This is especially important when meeting people for the first time. As there is usually no need to shake hands there is no need to draw close. On meeting, people usually bow a little. Sometimes you will see people almost bend in half. This is a sign of great respect or a kind of `please do a big favour for me' type bow. I find it quite embarrassing when someone sticks their face in their knees, but after a while you can become accustomed to it. Many people who have interacted with foreigners will shake your hand in greeting. Some try to shake hands and bow at the same time, but this can lead to swapping of hair grease and should be avoided if possible!
If you need to apologise, don't do it with your head held high and/or looking the receiver straight in the eye. Lower your head and look downwards as you apologise, or the receiver won't believe your apology at all. The same body language goes for giving gifts.
Young people know that there are certain rude hand signs used by foreigners, seen in the movies. It is most likely that they don't realise the significance of these signs. As I have suggested below for rude words, assume they are innocent bystanders of the modern world, and if you have the chance, teach them.
You may notice that people don't throw things when asked to pass something, as Westerners may do amongst friends and colleagues. It is extremely rude to do so in Japan. My colleague asked to borrow an eraser, so I niftily threw it over to him and it neatly popped into his hand. I didn't notice at the time, but later a student explained to me that my colleague had become intensely angry with me over it, despite realising that I had no idea it was rude. He just couldn't help himself because it is such an ingrained thing in Japanese society.
Banks are similar to here, except that there are no grilles as you find in some countries. They have cash dispensers but they are not open 24 hours. In terms of paying for things generally, almost all Japanese use cash. There is no cheque system in Japan. However, if you want to purchase an expensive item from a department store or company and you don't want to bring cash, you can pay for it by using a furikae yoshi, which is a kind of credit slip for the item that you take to the bank to debit against your account. Once the company has been notified by their bank that the item has been paid for, its yours. Many things can paid for in this way. Utility bills can conveniently be paid by direct debit through your bank, although you can use furikae yoshi if you wish.
If you have a credit card you can use it in many places, although don't forget that the exchange rate given you by an overseas-based credit card company is never good. In eleven years I used my credit card only once in Japan. If you want to send money home you can get a bank draft easily at a cost of about Y2,500. In Tokyo banks, foreign exchange counters should have English-speaking staff, and their forms are bilingual.
The Post office (yubin kyoku) is one of the most convenient places to have a money account, because in virtually every town in Japan you can withdraw money using your passbook, no matter how small the post office. This is very handy if you wish to travel without lots of cash. To open an account you'll need identity such as your passport, residential certificate (juminho), Alien Registration, and/or medical insurance card (hokken sho).
For overseas calls you can dial direct if your telephone has been connected for it. The country codes are the same as anywhere, the UK is 44 for example, as you would dial from Australia. The code to access the international line depends on the telephone company your telephone is connected to. For example, if it is the KDD then dial 0011, or 0012 if you want a call back on duration and cost. Other companies have different access codes (eg 0041 or 0061).
All international operators speak excellent English, so if you need a connection or have an enquiry, there is no communication problem. Local operators may speak English in Tokyo or another large city, but don't count on it. Of course, telephone books are unusable for you unless you can read Japanese very well.
Don't consider having a telephone connected to your residence unless you will be staying for some time, because the initial costs are very high. It can cost close to Y100,000 to be connected, though you can take this `membership' with you anywhere in Japan if you move.
Most Japanese homes use gas for cooking, kerosene (toyu) for heating, and electricity for most everything else. Because electricity is very expensive it is even possible to buy gas rice cookers. Kerosene (toyu) heaters (toyu sutobu) have automatic, spring-loaded devices for instantly turning off the flame in an earthquake. There are some pretty impressive hi-tech kerosene heaters that use a pressurised burner system, rather than a wick.
Electricity is set at 100V and at either 50 or 60 cycles, depending on where you are in Japan (it is 50 cycles in Tokyo). Almost all electrical items in Japan can self adjust to the cycle, but be careful with equipment you bring in from abroad.
The Japanese sort their rubbish (gomi) into burnable (moeru gomi) and unburnable (moenai gomi) objects, which are collected on different days. Newspapers are considered unburnable because they are recycled. Generally, put all plastics into bags labelled unburnable, and paper and dry kitchen waste into the burnable. Disposable nappies are considered burnable. You can use plastic shopping bags to hold both types of rubbish. Beer bottle empties and the like can be returned for a very small credit on your next purchase, or you can leave them in the crates outside the shop. Aluminium cans are also recycled.
It took me a while to discover, but people in Japan don't eat while they walk, and they don't eat in suburban and commuter trains (but there is good `O-Bento' to buy on long distance trains of course). I have seen people eating ice-cream while they walk, but generally they will buy the snack and then stand outside the shop and eat it. Try not to blow your nose in public. If you have a stinking cold, use one of those masks to stop the spreading of germs.
It seems to me that Japanese people have fewer hangups about nudity than Westerners, though some people may disagree. Only rarely now are some of the older public baths in country areas mixed. Onsen (hot spring) baths are great and are a national pastime. The rules for using public baths are the same as at home. Have fun!
Smoking is very common but there are specific areas of no smoking and these are very well adhered to. All shops and some restaurants are no-smoking, many restaurants have no-smoking areas. All commuter trains and now all stations are no-smoking. Generally, fewer women smoke. You will find less smoking in the university because the young and the smart know it is bad for the health.
I'm sure you will have guide books to help you travel in Japan, and your colleagues will help. Remember that certain times of year, such as New Year, Golden Week and Obon (see Appendix) are extremely busy and thus uncomfortable to travel. All railway signs are in English, Kanji (Chinese characters) and Hiragana, and many road signs are now also in English. Unfortunately, many rail maps outside stations are only in Japanese. In Tokyo it is easy to get an English version of the subway system.
Streets are not named in Japan except main roads in large cities. Local areas are divided into ever decreasing smaller areas until the last area contains just a few houses. This makes it very hard for foreigners to get about (even the locals are not that good at it). If you are to go to someone's house, they will have to draw you a map or meet you at the station or bus stop. In Tokyo, the central area is divided into 23 Ku's (eg Shibuya-ku) which is further divided into Chome's. I have some friends who live in 4-5-8 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku. This means they live in the eighth bit of the fifth section of the fourth Chome of Ebisu district. The postman knows the names of the people in each bit, and all people label their gate with their name and Chome section number. If you are lost, you can always know where you are because the relevant Chome and sections are labelled on some of the electricity poles. Of course, knowing where you are isn't necessarily going to get you off in the right direction, but you will also find maps on prominent street corners. Don't hesitate to ask someone, even if it is just pointing to the address. Any Japanese person can read and understand addresses written in English, though I wouldn't chance it on an old lady (I know a very sweet 91-year old who understands nothing of the alphabet and who thinks my terrible scrawly writing is very beautiful indeed!).
It seems that the main duty of the police in Japan is in giving directions! Certainly, it is very easy to find a local police box (koban) of which there are over 1,000 in Tokyo alone. The police wear guns in Japan, but it would be a very rare event indeed for one to be removed from the holster. Please consider the police to be your friends, they will certainly try their best to assist you in any way they can.
The Japanese use both the Gregorian and Japanese Calendar. New Year is the same as ours. The present era is called Heisei, and the Emperor's name is Akihito. However, no-one in Japan calls him by his name and he is generally referred to as Ten'no Heika. The previous era was called Showa, when Hirohito was Emperor. The current year is Heisei 4 (1992). You may be asked to write your date of birth in the era system, so you must work it out for the Showa era. Showa Gan-nen (year 1) was in 1926 and ended in 1989 when Hirohito died; thus 1951 was Showa 26, for example. For both the Gregorian calendar and Era, Japanese use year, month, day.
My good friend here from Armenia told me once that as far as he was concerned there are only two things wrong with Japan, the summer, and the winter. I have to agree with him about the summer, but one's opinion about the winter depends on the amount of insulation in the walls and ceiling of your house (of which there is usually none in Tokyo houses).
Japan extends a long way north-south, there are distinct mountain ranges, and as a result there are quite distinct regional differences in weather patterns both north-south and east-west. Hokkaido in the north is very cold in the winter but has very pleasant summers. South of the Tohoku region (northern Honshu) it can be very steamy during the summer but the winters are relatively mild. Kyushu in the south is almost sub-tropical. The Japan Sea coastal districts get a lot of snow in the winter, even as far south as Kyushu, yet the Pacific Ocean side of Japan can be snow-free quite far north, because the mountains take the precipitation from the easterlies.
In general, there are six seasons in Japan. Autumn and winter are both short, and the blossom can start in January, depending on the region. It is interesting to watch the wave of blossom from south to north over late winter and early spring, reported on the weather programs, as the weather warms northwards. Spring is, of course, the best time of year. There is blossom everywhere and people picnic under the blossom trees. Next comes the rainy season, and it can pour down day after day until you can imagine that summer won't come at all. Don't fret, you aren't going to like summer much anyway. Most of Japan except north of Tohoku is stinking hot and 100% humid during the summer. It isn't pleasant at all. Sometimes the power companies complain they are within a hair's breadth of power cuts because of all the air conditioners going! In the summer the cicadas (called `semi') are everywhere. It is said that the Japanese hear the call of the cicada with the side of the brain that also hears music, and they therefore enjoy the sound. We foreigners are supposed to hear the cicada call with the side of the brain that also hears noise, so we don't enjoy it. But I don't agree, I enjoy the sound of the cicada, it reminds me of many other pleasant things about summer. Soon though comes the Typhoon season, which brings more rain and high winds. Unfortunately, Typhoon season can also be very hot and sticky. By late September it is usually cooling down for autumn.
Hopefully you will only experience a mild earthquake (jishin) and none of the other events. All I want to say is that if you have an earthquake don't run out of the house, it is safer under a doorway or under a solid table. I got quite used to the small `quakes that occur every day, although in the Tokyo region (Kanto) there are one or two bad ones per year. Make sure your free-standing cupboards are tied to the wall. There is usually a device on top of the cupboard for doing this. If you are outside during an earthquake don't remain close to concrete walls as they are sometimes (illegally) unreinforced and likely to topple. Keep away from houses if you can because of possible slates falling down; wide open spaces are best or shelter in a doorway in narrow streets.
There was a quite unforgettable earthquake when I was in my office (on the 7th floor) one day in 1986, and at the time I thought I would be shaken out of the window. Afterwards I went down to my laboratory (on the 5th floor) to ask how things were there. The students were listening intently to the radio to discover where the epicentre of the earthquake had been. Fortunately the only casualty in the laboratory was a colleague who had been hit on the head by a flying toilet roll. When I stated that I didn't like earthquakes, a PhD student said very strongly "Who likes earthquakes?!". I guess I had assumed that the locals were so used to earthquakes that it didn't worry them. They had clearly been as frightened as I had been.
If you live in a high rise expect much more swaying than on the ground. It is apparently quite possible to get seasick because the flexibility of the buildings means that they sway for sometime after the `quake. Many earthquakes in the Kanto region start with a deep rumbling noise that feels like a truck is about to appear from out of the ground. You then have a second or two to get under a doorway or table before the shaking starts! This all sounds terribly traumatic but a really bad shake only occurs very infrequently and then there is usually minimal if no damage because almost everything in Japan is earthquake proof.
Since I wrote the above, there has been, of course, the most devastating earthquake in the Kobe area (on the 17th January, 1995, exactly one year after the Californian earthquake), in which over 5,000 people lost there lives and many more who were injured and lost their homes. It was a deep shock to all of us living in Japan and there is now a general feeling that the preparations for such a disaster and the safety of buildings are not as good as once thought. However, I should say that the majority who lost their lives were in old wooden buildings with heavy roofs and that modern buildings generally stood the terrific sideways movement very well. The Hanshin Dai Shin Sai (Great Hanshin Earthquake Disaster) was all the more a disaster because the Kobe area has had no small earhquakes for a very long time (some fifty years) and people there hadn't been reminded as frequently as those in Tokyo of the omnipresence of such a terrible event. Despite this, a recent survey showed that less than half of the pepole in Tokyo have made any kind of preparation for a disaster.