Neighbors: When you move into a new apartment, it is traditional--but not at all expected--to give your immediate neighbors small gifts to announce your arrival. Most Japanese do not do this themselves, but some do; I've received such gifts a few times myself. You can give something like a gift certificate for food or beer, available at ticket shops. You might want to bring a dozen or so small, inexpensive gifts from your home town or region when you go to Japan
for this eventuality.
Mail: Mail is delivered Monday through Saturday, just like in the U.S. However, your mailbox is only for mail delivery, and not pickup; to send mail, you must drop it in a mailbox or take it to the post office. Private mailboxes also do not have the same kind of protection they do in the U.S.; people can walk up to your mailbox and stuff as much junk mail into your mailbox as they please, and they often do. Real estate and pornography fliers are common junk
Trash & Recycling: Japanese trash pickup is handled very differently than in the U.S. Instead of once a week, it is picked up almost daily: three times a week for "burnable" (regular) trash, twice a week for "unburnable" (plastics, metals) trash, and once a month for various other categories, such as glass, cardboard/paper, or non-recyclable metal items like batteries. Large items, called "dai-gomi," are usually picked up by appointment for a small fee.
Trash is left out in clear plastic bags, not trash cans. The bags must be clear, or semi-transparent, to assure that the trash is of the right type for that day's pickup. You do not leave the trash out in front of your own residence, but rather at one of several trash pickup points available on every block. Your neighbors will usually prefer that you wait until early morning to leave your trash out on the street, because if you leave it out the previous night
neighborhood cats and large crows come out, tear it up and spread it around.
Sento (Bath Houses): One misconception held by many westerners about Japan is the myth of mixed bathing. You've probably seen the old American Express commercial about the American tourist couple in the Japanese bathhouse. The fact is (disappointing or otherwise), such co-ed baths are quite rare in Japan. In all my years in Japan, I never saw one; I have only heard that there are a few mixed bathing pools in hot spring spas, and some mixed public baths in small villages in the deep countryside.
Most sento, however, are segregated. When you walk in the front, you will see two doors, one for men and one for women. You walk in, and just past the door is the clerk, ready to take your money or your ticket, if you've bought them in advance. The clerk sits in a small booth between the men's and women's sides of the bathhouse. Just beyond the clerk is the locker room, where you dress and undress, leaving your goods in a locker, the key to which you take with you on a chain. When you go to the sento, you should bring your own supplies: shampoo, soap, towels, etc. If you forget anything, they usually have items for sale.
After you undress and put things away in the locker, you go into the main bath room. You cannot enter the bath until you shower yourself first; that would dirty the bathwater. You sit on a small plastic stool (less than a foot tall) and be sure to snag one of the small plastic buckets (stools and buckets are supplied). Many sento have no shower heads, just a pair of taps, hot and cold. Watch out, because "hot" can be really hot. You fill the bucket with water and douse yourself; soap up, scrub, and douse until you're clean.
Now it's time for the tub, which is mostly just for relaxing. Make sure you're completely rinsed, because you don't want to get soap suds in the bathwater. Be careful getting in, because the water can be very hot. Some of your fancier sento might have different kinds of baths, like a Jacuzzi; one bath house I visited had a bath with--I am not making this up--an electric current running through it. One other odd thing, one which shows up another misconception westerners have--Japanese are renowned for their lack of body shyness, but this isn't the case. Even in the sento, everyone tends to carry around small towels. Some use them for washing, but the main purpose seems to be for use as a fig leaf.
I don't know--maybe it's just because there was a gaijin present....
Dentists: If you have insurance from the Japanese government (Social or National), then you are covered for dental work except for cosmetics (unfortunately, any work on your upper front teeth, even to repair a chipped tooth or replace a broken one, is considered cosmetic). You can go to any dentist who accepts national insurance, and most do. However, many Japanese dentists are not as trained as dentists you are used to, and many western clients have voiced complaints about the quality of dental care in Japan. In choosing a dentist, go on the recommendation of a non-Japanese friend who will know better what you expect. Some dentists have modern offices and were trained in the U.S. Unfortunately, many of these do not take national insurance.
At the standard dentist's office, expect to have your visits stringed out; dentists can collect more payments from national insurance if they have you come in for more visits. Whenever I came in for my 6-month check-up and teeth cleaning, they would do the checkup and then tell me to make 4 appointments for the cleaning: one appointment for each side of my lower and upper teeth. When I had root canal, they had me come in more than a dozen times. You may not be able
to get them to change this.
Hospitals: There is usually a hospital within a few miles of your residence; most are smaller, private hospitals instead of the behemoths we usually have in the U.S. Several "hospitals," more like clinics, specialize in various types of medical services. When you are told by a doctor to get prescription medicine, you are usually required to pick it up at the hospital or clinic pharmacy. Since doctors usually get a cut of all sales, they have a tendency to prescribe too much. I usually found myself getting three kinds of medicine prescribed--pills, capsules, and packets of powder--no matter what I
came in and complained of.
Religion: There are two major religions in Japan: Shinto and Buddhism. 84% of the population claim to be members of both faiths. Christianity is still a small but active minority with less than 1% of the population. Shinto is an animistic and sometimes nationalistic religion with a creation myth and long history; the present emperor, Akihito, is the 125th in an unbroken line descended from the gods who created the universe. Most marriages are Shinto ceremonies. Buddhism was imported to Japan in the 6th century A.D. from Korea patrons called the Soga, who rose to political ascendance for more than century. During this time, Prince Shotoku, a regent of the Soga-controlled court, built numerous temples and spread Buddhism throughout the country; Shotoku is one of Japan's more famous historical figures. Funerals are usually Buddhist affairs.
Most Japanese will tell you they practice both Shinto and Buddhism; many if not most of these people tend to keep their faiths in the background, perhaps visiting shrines and temples less than a dozen times a year on holidays or for special events. Religion and politics do not often mix in Japan, even though
political figures (more often Buddhists) often run for office.
Sports: Baseball has been the most popular sport in Japan for almost a hundred years, but soccer ("football" outside North America) has made a quick rise in the past decade and is challenging baseball's overwhelming dominance. Sumo is the only widely popular native sport in Japan, but has not been too closely followed by most, except for a period of several years when the brothers Wakanohana and Takanohana made a big splash. Basketball, hockey and American
football are not well-known or watched in Japan.
Politics: Before the Meiji Revolution in 1868, Japanese governments were usually military dictatorships under the umbrella of imperial legitimacy, or things were less organized with dozens of warring clans and fiefdoms competing across the country. Japan was united under one government by a series of conquerors: Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Ieyasu Tokugawa. Tokugawa moved the nation's capital from Kyoto to Edo (now Tokyo), and started a dynasty that brought two and a half centuries of relative peace and stability to the country, now known as the Edo Period. During this period, foreigners were prohibited from entering the country, and Japanese were prohibited from traveling abroad.
After the Meiji Revolution, Japan became a parliamentary monarchy with a prime minister and a legislative body called the Diet; the emperor was the titular head of the country, but in fact wielded little power. After World War II, Japan maintained its parliament, the main difference being the reduction of the emperor from a godhead to a figurehead, and the transformation of Japan's military to a scaled-down self-defense force ("jietai"). The conservative "Liberal Democratic" party held sole power in Japanese government for nearly forty years until its fragmentation about a decade ago; since then, there has been a string of relatively shaky coalition governments.
Elections are held every once in a while, and they're hard to miss: although politicians are forbidden to advertise on TV or campaign door-to-door, they are allowed to ride around in loudspeaker trucks repeating pleads for the votes of local residents at amazing decibel levels. Although they are legally forbidden to operate these trucks early in the morning or late in the evening, and are supposed to stay clear of schools and hospitals, these rules are often ignored, and everyone is treated to several weeks of incessant noise. Sometimes these trucks will park outside train stations, the candidate and many white-gloved male and female assistants will mount a platform atop their truck, and start shouting campaign promises to crowds of passers-by who tend to ignore the onslaught. Campaign posters are allowed, but only on special erected boards
placed along sidewalks in the neighborhoods.
Calendars: Although Japan has long used the Gregorian calendar, Japan's own ancient calendar system is used in many official and business capacities. This calendar system, begun in the 7th century A.D., uses "nengo," periods from a few years to several decades. Historically, a new period would be initiated whenever there was a particularly auspicious event, such as the ascension of a new emperor or the end of a war. After the Meiji Restoration, it was decided that only the enthronement of a new emperor would bring about a new nengo. The longest on record was the "Showa" era, 64 years long, ending with the death of Hirohito in January 1989. The same year, his son, Akihito, became the new emperor and thus began the present "Heisei" era, of which we are now in the 10th year--so don't be confused to see the number 10 instead of 98 denoted as the present year in Japan.
Nengo both end and begin in the same year, so the 64th "year" of the Showa era lasted little longer than a week; the rest of 1989 was the first year ("gan-
nen") of the Heisei era. The name of an era is decided by a government panel.
Police: Japan is renowned for being a virtually crime-free country, and usually Japanese police get the credit. This does not exactly reflect reality. It is true Japan is very safe, and you can walk the streets at night feeling pretty secure, but there is more crime in Japan than the statistics tell, and the police are not always very effective in pursuing it. Japan's incredibly high arrest and conviction rates do not just reflect efficient criminal justice, but also effective interrogation techniques, a high number of confessions, some forced, and a judicial system (no juries) which tends to consider a suspect guilty on little more than the recommendation of the prosecutor.
This is not to say that Japan's judicial system has run amok, crime is everywhere and innocents are always sent to jail, far from it. However, many crimes go unreported, especially sexual crimes, or crimes where there is little chance of catching the perpetrator. The Yakuza tend to go relatively unhindered by Japanese police, especially where "victimless" crimes are concerned. Gambling and prostitution, although illegal, are practiced very visibly; police will sometimes make token raids, usually with a politician somewhere nearby mugging for the media, which is always alerted for these events.
Also, police have much more freedom than their western counterparts in making arrests and interrogations. For example, the police may hold someone on suspicion, without filing an actual charge, and keep that person incommunicado for more than three weeks while they are questioned. I have never met anyone who this was done to, however; you don't really have to worry too much about it happening to you.
The police do pay some special attention to foreigners, however; because of Japanese stereotypes that foreigners are more likely to be criminals, foreign residents get stopped on the streets a lot more--especially if you are a foreigner who rides a bicycle, and thus look like you stole it. When the police stop you, on foot or on bike, they will ask to see your Alien Registration Card ("Gaikokujin Toroku-sho"), popularly called a "gaijin card" by those required to carry it. This used to be a small booklet with a dozen or more pages, but has been cut down to the size of a driver's license. If the police stop you and you cannot produce your card, they will probably take you to the police station where you must fill out explanation and apology forms. Someone must then bring
the card to the station before they will release you.
Weddings & Funerals: Weddings, usually Shinto ceremonies, are often held in hotels nowadays. When invited, you are expected to bring a gift of money in a special envelope, usually from 5000 yen up, depending on your relationship to the betrothed. Guests are usually invited to the reception only; the actual ceremony is usually held with only family and those who introduced the couple in attendance. The reception is usually held in a hotel ballroom, with everyone seated at tables. The bride and the groom remain seated at a table at the front of the room, with the parents of both bride and groom seated at the back. There is no dancing, rather a series of presentations, such as speeches, slide shows and musical numbers. The bride and groom, silent throughout most of the event, will leave for costume changes several times; the bride will usually wear at least two kimonos (one white for the ceremony, another brightly colored), one western wedding gown, and sometimes a evening gown. The groom will typically wear just two outfits, one a traditional black kimono, and a tuxedo. Kimono rentals can be prohibitively expensive; rentals fees for one day may exceed the amount Americans sometimes spend for the outright purchase of a wedding gown. Guests are all presented with gift bags, containing several small gifts and snacks, and usually one medium-sized gift. You can recognize people returning from a wedding by these bags.
Funerals are naturally more somber affairs, usually Buddhist ceremonies. Signs are posted outside the house or building where ceremonies are taking place. Everyone wears black, and guests bring gifts of money in special envelopes. The casket is then carried by a special hearse with an ornate golden top. People are always cremated in Japan, not buried; tombstones tend to be shaped like tiered obelisks. When family members visit, they often leave favorite foods of the deceased at the base of the gravesite. When a bowl rice is left, the chopsticks are stuck in the rice with the sticks pointing up; this is why it is considered
bad luck for chopsticks to be left in this manner at the dinner table.
Holidays: Holidays include: New Years (Jan. 1), usually extended to the first three days of the month. Food ("osechi-ryouri") is often prepared before New Year and eaten over the first three days. Shrines are visited ("hatsumode") and children are given cash gifts. People send and receive "nenga-jo," New Year's postcards, the same way Americans send Christmas cards. Nenga-jo, however, are in the form of postcards, and most sport a number for a lottery held by the post office every year. Coming of Age Day (Jan. 15) is celebrated by those who turn 20 (legal adult age) in the new year. Golden week stretches from April 29th (Green Day, formerly Emperor Hirohito's birthday) to May 5th (Children's Day), including 4 national holidays in all. O-Bon, the Buddhist Festival of the Dead, comes in mid-August; usually people get 3 days to a week off, and use the time to travel to their hometowns to pray at the graves of their deceased ancestors. Other national holidays throughout the year include Constitution Day, Vernal and Autumnal Equinoxes, Respect for the Aged Day,
Culture Day, Sports Day, and the Emperor's Birthday (now Dec. 23).
Movies: Movies in Japan can be quite expensive, 1,800 yen apiece for tickets (more for reserved seats). Advance tickets can be bought for a 300 yen discount; they are attractive picture tickets, and can be used on any day of the movie's run. Cheaper tickets (as low as 1,000 yen) can be bought at some ticket shops. There are no bargain matinees in Japan, but 4 days in a year (the first day of every third month) are "movie days," where all theaters offer tickets at half price (only $7.00!!) for the whole day. Naturally, all the theaters are packed on these days.
Although some theaters have all of the best seats in the center of the theater set aside for reserved seating, the rest of the theater is general seating and there is no control on how many people may enter. In the U.S., fire safety codes prohibit SRO attendance, but there appear to be no such codes in Japan. Highly popular films may be jam-packed, with people standing 2- or 3-deep at the back and sides of the auditorium; you are advised to either cough up a lot of money for reserved seats, or wait for the crowds to die down. Theaters are not usually cleared between shows, so you can stay for as many showings as you like. Concessions are not a big thing in Japanese theaters; some offer stale popcorn in bags, but most just sell rice crackers and other unexpected fare; drinks are available from vending machines. The number one complaint most Japanese make about the theater experience is not other people talking--it is other people
eating during the film.
Secondhand Goods: The most popular way to buy cheap furniture and appliances among foreigners in Japan are Sayonara Sales, when foreigners return to their home country and sell all their stuff before they go. These are listed in Tokyo Classifieds, and the Daily Yomiuri's once-weekly classified ads section, and other places. Another source are secondhand shops, called "Recycle" shops in Japanese. You can find these listed in the "Hello Pages" (Yellow Pages)
Riding Trains: Tickets may be purchased at machines outside the ticket gates. Maps (in Japanese only) above the machines show prices for any destination. If you cannot figure out the correct price, just buy the cheapest one and pay the difference at your destination. The machines take coins, and sometimes 1,000 yen bills and pre-paid rail cards. A small magnetic-backed ticket is dispensed from the machine with the name of the station it was purchased at and the amount paid. You insert this ticket--or your train pass, if you have one--in the ticket slot at the gate, and pick it up on the other side.
Trains are very often right on schedule, and stop so precisely that the doors always open at the same spot, marked on the edge of the platform. Trains can be as long as 11 cars (usually 10 on JR trains in Tokyo), and usually have three doors on each side of each car. Unless you get on at the right stop, you will probably have to stand. Trains are often crowded so that people are packed tightly in, unable to move. There is a problem with "chikan," or gropers; women are very often accosted on the trains, and more often than not do not confront their molesters. Not many Japanese give up seats for pregnant women or the elderly. Announcers call out each stop (usually inaudibly); they speak in a stylized, high-pitched nasal voice for some reason.
When you get off the train, keep in mind most stations have more than one exit, and the place you are going or the person you are meeting may not be at the most obvious one. If you bought a ticket with a lesser or greater amount than is appropriate for your destination, you may correct it at a fare adjustment machine (usually marked in English) before the ticket gate. Sometimes a ticket
taker will handle the adjustment.
Bicycles: Bicycles are a good form of local transportation. Many use them, and train stations are usually surrounded by a sea of parked bicycles. Bike locks in Japan tend to be very primitive, and are easily circumvented, but bike theft is not a major problem. There are no bike lanes, so often cyclists ride on the sidewalks, ringing their bells loudly. No one wears bike helmets,
and you'll never see anyone in bike pants unless they bicycle for a living.
Driving: You can get an international driving license before you come to Japan; they last for one year. You can also take your U.S. license into the Japanese DMV and have them make you a Japanese version of one; you'll need an application form, a passport-sized photo, your Alien Registration Card, your driver's license from your home country and your passport Driving in Japan can be quite expensive and troublesome; unless you have a great desire to see the country by car, don't bother with them. If you feel you need motorized transportation, consider a scooter; it can go on most regular roads, gets great
mileage (at $4 a gallon that matters), and you can park it nearly anywhere.
Social Security: Some schools you work for will deduct social security taxes from your paychecks. If at all possible, prevent them from doing so; I know that at least in some cases, there is no obligation to do so. If you plan to stay long-term in Japan and possibly collect on those payments, be aware that by current law, foreigners must pay these taxes for at least 25 years before they can receive any benefits, and with Japan's population aging as it is, and retirement age set at 55 years of age for many, don't expect the system to remain solid. A recent change in law, however, does allow a refund of up to three years' payments upon departing Japan, so there is recourse if your school gives you no choice but to pay the taxes as you work.
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