It’s not a shock to anyone following Far East Fling that Jody and I are huge fans of the Japanese and Okinawans, their culture, and their country. I recently did a blog on our “Top 10 Things Done Right” in Japan, but of course, being in Asia, every yin has its yang, or vice versa. In other words, there are things done wrong in the Far East, sometimes dreadfully so! Thus, what follows is our (short) listing of the “Top 10 Vexes” that irks us here to no end. While you may not agree, and it may counter to flirting with the Far East, I hope that at least you find the humor in the views of a couple of misplaced gaijin Westerners.
10. KFC. That’s right, Kentucky Fried Chicken. The KFCs in Okinawa are certainly not in Kansas anymore, and neither can one find a hint of Kentucky in Okinawa. The chickens are smallish Asian birds, and the original recipe is served quite slimy (all personal opinion, of course). The sodas are quite size-challenged, looking more like a kiddie drink in the states, and this strong American male needs more than a shot (or two) of Coke, diet or not. But the worst offense, by far, one which the Colonel standing outside every KFC in Japan cannot overcome with his food aficionado’s charm, is the biscuit served here. They are at once dense, lacking both butter- and buttermilk flavors, and presented with a hole in the center. People, it’s more like a donut that a buttermilk biscuit! And it should be considered a culinary crime.
9. Christmas. Now that Halloween is about to come and go, Japan is already switching to Christmas. Shop-fronts are being decorated with most-things Santa, trees are popping up in hotel lobbies, and you’ll find a plastic Colonel Sanders dressed in a Santa outfit outside many branches of KFC throughout Okinawa (still can’t make up for the dang biscuit tragedy). But, like most places, the hype can’t hold up to actually delivering the Christmas spirit. It’s no secret that Japan isn’t based on Christianity, and it shouldn’t come as a shock to hear that Christmas Day is just another working day for the Japanese. In fact, Christmas in Japan is really for lovers (see my blog Christmas is for Lovers). And, given that paradigm shift, December 24th in Japan is perhaps considered the biggest day for romance of the year. But very shortly afterwards, the Japanese swiftly move on to more fitting and appropriate Asian-inspired holidays, like celebrating the Chinese lunar new year…. Of course there is the fixation in Japan on “Christmas Dinner,” which in the last 40 years has become completely synonymous with KFC (do you sense a common denominator so far??). So instead of the biggest, baddest, bestest roast beast of the year, the Japanese turn to a family-sized bucket of the Colonel’s finger-lickin’-good chicken to season the season. And they are dead serious about it here; orders usually are placed sometime in November, and KFCs publish a pickup schedule as timely and precise as they are known for the running of their mass transit trains.
8. Red Lights and No Left (our right) Turns. There is no left on red here, the equivalent of no right turn on red in America. Now sure, there are places where this may hold true at home in the states, but by-in-large, we endeavor to keep traffic moving along by allowing such turns…albeit after a full stop and checking for others who may have right-of-way. In Japan, pedestrians hold sanctity over timeliness (which is itself next to godliness, or so we’re all told); here, people on foot or bike actually matter more than how late you may be to grabbing your overpriced Starbucks caramel mocha frappuccino. Likewise, many neighborhood intersections stop traffic in all directions to allow pedestrians to cross (read more in my blog Red Lights Running). These two facets of Japanese traffic de-engineering – no turns on red and stopping all traffic – are bad enough alone or together, but when you realize that none of the lights are timed with any others, and every red light here works on a simple timer vice being traffic-triggered, grid lock assumes a new and potentially frustrating definition. If the Japanese drivers and people weren’t so dang polite, it would surely lead to road rage…but her there is NONE. Another amazing benefit: it allows small children in Japan, like 5 or 6 years old, to walk to school alone, where they simply raise their hand when approaching an intersection as a signal that they intend to cross the road and you best stop and yield (which most do).
7. Renting and Moving. Moving is expensive, relatively speaking, no matter where one resides. With plots the size of most American backyards costing obscene amounts of money in Japan, it’s really no wonder that rents here are so high. But renting an apartment involves far more expenditure than the same action generally requires back home in the States. It takes handfuls of cash here to get handed a key! When renting a domicile in Japan, generally speaking, you need a purse bloated enough to cover: 1) First month’s rent up-front, which seems to be an international standard of sorts. 2) “Shikikin,” or the Far East version of a security deposit, where like most places, it is mostly refundable but equal to one or two month’s rent. 3) “Reikin,” or a gratuity, where the capitalistic-lite money-trail in Japan takes its first dramatic and uncapitalistic twist. Written in kanji as 礼 “thanks” and 金 “money”, reikin of up to two month’s rent is paid to some greedy landlords in order to secure an apartment. 4) Housing agency fees, which accounts for yet another month’s rent. And finally, 5) Price Gouging. This last one I’m perfectly okay with, being married to an Active Duty member of the US armed forces. The Okinawans know all too well what the maximum housing allowances are for the American military, based on rank and dependent status, and often times will price a unit targeted at Americans at the very upper allowance limit, which is often times 33-50% more than would be charged for a local. Since military members don’t get more than they actually pay in rent, no one loses. In fact, I’m all for the local economy benefiting from having such a large and strong American presence on their tiny island. For me and Jody, renting our Quirky Condo (see the blog Our Home, Kwuirky with a K!), priced at ~$2750/month, cost us out-of-pocket something on the order of $7,000 in cash. And this is low considering that most property owners and housing agencies on Okinawa have come to realize (after probably being forced by the US government) that compulsory gratuities are incredibly old-fashioned and illegal in the American framework, and thus they ask only for partially refundable security deposits. Add in the expensing, in cash, of buying, registering, and insuring two vehicles, and that total jumps to $15,000! Yikes.
6. Bureaucracy. Some rather silly traditions and rules past their primes result in a rigid bureaucracy in Japan, which they get incredibly “right.” It makes this “wrong” listing since some elements of the Japanese society can be frustratingly backwards. The Japanese positively excel at making inane processes even more laborious and painful; rules in Japan were and are never made or intended to be broken. Ever. Case in point: we went to board an airport terminal bus, and were the only two getting on. However, we were motioned off the bus and down along the curb about 40’, where, after the bus pulled forward, we were then allowed to board…. All Jody and I could do was smile at each other. Japanese bureaucracy, however, is also largely responsible for many of the reasons why Jody and I enjoy living in a country where everything runs so smoothly, from on-time, every time mass transit, to first-class customer service wherever you go, to on-time almost-to-the-minute service calls and deliveries, all with zero fuss and all smiles. These things are only possible through a comprehensive web of rules and standards. In fact, I’ve been told that either in government service or civilian working life, the Japanese are often wary of those who try to effect change and bend rules as they run counter to the whims and greater good of everyone else. A favorite line I like to quote: “While the West invented bureaucracy, the Japanese perfected it!”
5. Packaging. We’re not talking about handsome traditional Japanese packaging or beautiful Asian gift-wrapping here, both of which are unassumingly stunning and widely utilized. What I’m talking about here is Japan’s craze with sealing most anything and perhaps almost everything in plastic. Japan as a country is way ahead of America in terms of recycling and consumer participation in the direct management of waste streams, but from every appearance, there is a use of plastic more massive than anything in the West that I’m familiar with. Now, who doesn’t like crisp, fresh and delicious crackers? But not each individual one needs to be hermetically sealed. Seriously, Japan, you are killing us and your small corner of the planet with plastic. Give it a rest!
4. Television. Japan offers a wide array of quality anime and raw manga, and of course there are the cheesy dramas that the Japanese love with a passion, but much of the programming here (especially in Okinawa) is just crudely bad. Silly low-budget chat shows, slapstick comedies, and the craziest game shows on the planet all make the menu of mediocre. Now if variety shows tickle your fancy – ones with large panels of the same B-list celebrities week after week, each with carefully crafted lines and jokes and female audience members exclaiming “EEEEE-eee!” in amazement and disbelief, all presented in a format that looks like it was produced by a bunch of high-school vocational broadcasting students – then you’re in for a real treat in Japan. Jody and I, however, switch on our televisions to Japanese programming only when we’ve run out of cute cat videos to watch online.
3. Money and ATMs. Producing some of the world’s best technological gadgets, one would think that the Japanese would be paying for their commercialism by embedded RF chips in their forearms or via retinal scanning, let alone swiping a piece of plastic like most of the rest of the First World does. While businesses are getting better and better about accepting credit cards, Okinawa (and wider Japan to a lesser extent) is still very much a cash-based society that necessitates have at least ten or twenty thousand yen in your wallet at any given time. Especially on the weekends. “Why,” I hear you asking? Because the majority of ATMs (and their hosting banks) close completely – literally via an automated metal shutter – in the evening and on weekends. Or if they remain open, extra fees for cash withdraws when most people want cash the most are charged. Many local bars and Mom & Pop businesses remain strictly cash only, debit cards use remains rare. Hey Japan, if you want your well-paid citizenry to roil up the economy, you’ve got to allow access to money! Lucky for Jody and I, the ATMs on base are all run by the 24/7 American banking industry, and Bank of America ATMs discharge both dollars and Yen without any surcharges. We still carry around gobs of cash, both in dollars and yen.
2. Public Trash Cans. One of the most annoying facets of living in Okinawa is the island’s apparent abhorrence with public trash cans. I can just imagine the bureaucratic logic: “Hey Mayumi, if we put out public trash cans, not only do we have to buy them first, we have to pay for pickup!” “Osamu, you’re absolutely right: no public trash cans is the absolute and only solution!” So, we live along an absolutely beautiful and popular seawall fronting the East China Sea, only to have it marred by constant litter everywhere. No, the public doesn’t take their refuse away, nor does the community chip in to help. Litter is ubiquitous, exactly because there is nowhere to put it. If only Japan had their version of a proud, shirtless Indian crying along the seashore, things would be different. Shame on you Japan, for being both obtuse litterbugs AND not providing a means for public refuse collection.
1. Heating, Cooling & (the lack of) Insulation. Like the Geiko commercials go, everyone knows that…houses in Japan are thin and poorly insulated because they’re designed to be as light as possible in order to better withstand earthquakes. But that doesn’t have to mean they are either insanely hot during an Okinawan summer, or miserably cold in the northern reaches of Honshu in winter. A lack of central air conditioning means each room has its own power-hungry wall-mounted air conditioner, a rather inefficient way to cool or heat a dwelling. Add in what seems to be almost a national allergy to any material or design with even a hint of insulating properties, what results is an Island populace that is, in effect, cooling (or heating) the surrounding environment in their expensive efforts to make the indoors inhabitable! Read Timeless Townhouse for more on historical Japanese home design. In fact, What happens is that the external environment actually finds it way inside; see Tropical Troubles for one unfortunate result. One day Japan will come to the collective realization that science has, indeed, already produced ultra-light, super-insulating and affordable materials that can be effectively integrated into Japan’s domestic domiciles.
In the grand scheme of life in our Far East Fling, these pet peeves matter little. Life is Good in and throughout Japan! But like anywhere else in the world, life in this island-nation of Asia has its pros and cons. What do YOU who have traveled or lived here find most annoying about being a stranger in this strange land?