Life in Tokyo: My Japanese is not jouzu
When I first moved to Tokyo I often had the impression that I was the only American in sight at any given time outside of tourist areas. Part of this may have been because of the significant flight of foreigners in general after the tragic Tohoku earthquake of 2011. It turns out though that, statistically, I wasn’t too far off the mark.
Statistics for 2018 from the Bureau of General Affairs show that the top 3 foreign nationalities in Tokyo are: 38.3% Chinese, 17.3% Korean, and 6.2% Vietnamese. Following in descending order are listed: Filipino, Nepalese, Taiwanese, American, Indian, Burmese (Myanmar), and Thai. All other nationalities comprise the remaining 14.4%. Shinjuku ward comes in 1st place with the most foreigners of any ward, with 8.1% of foreigners in Tokyo prefecture, and 9.6% of foreigners within the 23 special wards of Tokyo.
When I moved into my apartment in Nakano ward of Tokyo in 2012, I moved into an area that had, at the time, about 10,000 foreigners, around 400 of which were American, out of some 300,000 people in the general population. That’s about 3% foreigners, and 0.1% Americans. It may seem like a lot, but having come from Silicon Valley where some 38.1% of people were foreign born (2012–2016), this was basically a homogeneous Japanese population.
Last time I talked a bit about my experiences working in a semi-traditional Japanese company in Tokyo, so this time I’ll talk about some fun things about real life outside of work.
Do you teach English?
“Ah no, I’m a programmer”. I lost count of how many times I answered this question, but looking back now at the statistics and how few Americans were around, and how big foreign assistant language teacher (ALT) programs like the JET programme are, it makes sense. I actually heard a lot of English-teaching sessions at coffee shops in Shibuya, Shinjuku and other large metropolitan areas.
When I first introduced myself to people, I tried using the word 開発者 (developer), but it didn’t seem to convey much to people. Then I would try the word S.E. (System Engineer), and sometimes that would fail too. Finally I would fall back on my last resort: IT系（IT type）and people would say “oh!” which is amusing, because that word is so vague as to include almost anyone who does any work with a computer, but it let the conversations continue. As the years passed, I learned that maybe プログラマー (programmer) was the best to go with.
Your Japanese is great!
Person: Your Japanese is great!
Me: Ah, no, I’m just greeting…
This has never ceased to amuse me. I think it’s due to a combination of a few things. First, many foreigners move to Japan and never learn more Japanese than is required to buy a beer at the local konbini, sometimes because they have a friend or significant other that takes care of all things requiring the Japanese language, or because they just don’t care, or they simply find the language too difficult. Another part is just people being polite.
I don’t consider myself to be good at Japanese. My reading and writing is below middle school level, my Japanese is strongly accented, my vocabulary is lacking, and I often stumble on simple sentences, but the bar is set low enough that it seems to be ok. I handled most of my own Japanese bureaucracy, except when I didn’t have the energy to speak in keigo and asked someone else to do it. After a while, it gets easier.
In Silicon Valley it’s pretty rare to hear “your English is great!” except when it’s said to non-white people who grew up in an English-speaking area, leading to cringeworthy conversations involving questions like “no, where are you really from?”
American: “You must be eating really healthy! I hear Japanese people are thin and healthy”
Me: “Uhhh, sure…”
For some reason, many people outside of Japan are convinced that everyone in Tokyo eats healthily all the time, and everyone is thin. I admit, it’s true that people in Tokyo are generally thinner than the American average, but I think that says more about problems of American obesity than anything else.
As for healthy, I think it depends. I know a lot of people who eat konbini food, or other fast food, on a regular basis, and others who cook for themselves all the time and are in great shape. Depending on your job, you may have extremely long hours which make it hard to cook for yourself or to choose to eat healthy. If you eat out, many of the eateries in Tokyo offer little in the way of salads, and when they do, they’re often seasoned. To this point, I actually really liked Otoya as a sensible compromise between convenience and health. It’s not the most healthy food, but it beats many of the alternatives. Of course, if you look further than chains and common shops, some parts of Tokyo have healthier alternatives, but it wasn’t a widespread phenomenon. In this regard, Tokyo is not very different than any other major world city.
Japan also has mandatory annual physical exams. If you are a full-time employee, your employer is required by law to pay for your annual physical exam, and you are required by law to take it. Preventive medicine works, I guess. Who knows, maybe one day America will have a sensible healthcare system, and we’ll see things get better. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
When I moved to Tokyo, I wanted to explore many new restaurants. Unfortunately for me, a non-smoker used to life in California, I would find out that indoor smoking in restaurants and cafes was the norm. This limited my ability to explore shops, as I prioritize breathing over eating. Many times though, I would end up going to izakaya with friends and just dealing with it, hating every minute of it.
In recent years, however, smoking has begun to disappear from many restaurants and coffee shops, and outdoor smoking areas are being moved and are shrinking. Perhaps in a few more years things will be as good as they are in Seoul, or in California.
There was once a shop near Harajuku Station that sold limited edition popcorn. It was lined up around the block regularly. Popcorn. Now it’s understandable that in such a densely populated area like Tokyo that lines would form, but sometimes they get a little out of hand. I was around during new years, when many people go to the nearby Meiji Shrine, but I couldn’t tell which line was longer: first prayer of the year, or popcorn.
Popular shops tend to get long lines, but sometimes I’d notice a domino effect with lines even at small shops. I think that the critical mass is usually about 8–10 people. If a line manages to get this long, sometimes people start lining up just because they see others line up, and before you know it, the line is 50 people long.
This phenomenon is apparently not unnoticed by the Japanese, and some locals are also amused by it.
There is a slight problem with overwork in Japan, and as I went around the city, it was normal to see people sleeping almost anywhere, at any time. I felt really bad for them, and really lucky to have a job that didn’t have the insane hours some people work there.
There’s also a slight problem of overdrinking in Tokyo, like with many big cities. However, sometimes it was still hard to explain what happened to someone. I’m sure there’s a long story behind this one. This is the Yamanote line loop, so he was probably trying to go home on the first train, but ended up going in circles all morning instead. I hope he made it home safely.
The Good Stuff
Alright, let’s talk about the good stuff about Tokyo. I feel like it’s talked about so often that it wouldn’t be interesting if I mentioned it so I left it out of my last post, but it’s important that people understand that I loved my experience in Tokyo overall, so here we go. There’s a lot of it. You’ve probably heard a lot of things, some of which is true.
At the time I left Silicon Valley in 2012, the so-called center of the tech world, the internet speeds were laughable and overpriced (20-30Mbps for $70/month). Tokyo had 100Mbps (symmetric) for some $35/month. If you wanted to splurge for 1Gbps and it was available, that might set you back $50/month. Now I’m back in Silicon Valley and can get 250Mbps down (30Mbps up… lol…), for around $110/month, and 1Gbps for almost $200/month (not the upload). Better, but still an embarrassment for Silicon Valley. If you get lucky in San Francisco, you can get 500Mbps for $60/month from a certain provider, but otherwise, it’s in the hands of the few major internet service providers. Ah, the power of oligopoly.
Yes, ramen. I’ll admit to eating more ramen than is generally prudent. Yes, tsukemen, soba, mazesoba, udon, and the nearly endless list of noodles. Yes, washoku in general, I mean of course, it’s Japan. Japanese-style pasta is awesome and I wish we had it here. And on and on. You will never be bored of exploring food places in Tokyo, it’s endless.
Generally speaking, I don’t look up a shop online before walking into it, because most of them tend to at least be fine, if not quite good. However, if you do look things up in Japanese food apps, you’ll find a few interesting things. First, the star-ratings are incredibly strict. A 3/5 star restaurant is considered quite good, and 4/5 is quite rare. Also, the breakdowns often show decimal parts, such as 3.1 stars. I don’t know about the rest of the world, but American app ratings tend to hand out 4 or 5 stars like candy, and I often can’t rely on reviews, and end up either asking friends or trying for myself.
Trains and buses will get you nearly everywhere in Tokyo, especially near the center. It’s significantly more expensive than, say, Seoul, but the frequency of trains and rapid commuter trains are the tradeoff.
Yes, trains tend to be relatively on time… until rush hour, and then all hell breaks loose. The Chuo Line and Yamanote Line routinely run late in the morning and night, as do several others that have high usage. This is largely due to the sheer volume of humans, as well as the habit of squeezing the last possible mm² out of every train. Yes, sometimes people shove themselves into a train that is nearly impossible to get on, slowing down the entire line’s commuters, and causing network effect slowdowns of related lines. It could be that they are very afraid of being late, which is acceptable given Japan has a history of strictness about being late to work, to the point where you can ask the train company for an official note explaining why the train was delayed (this is changing now I believe). Some people simply have a false sense of economy about “time saved” when they squeeze on. Regardless, the end result is that the train lines slow down.
If you ride during these hours, consider yourself warned: some people on the train at rush hour may end up hurting you, accidentally or otherwise. Physics limits how many humans you can fit safely onto a train, and Tokyo definitely stretches the limits. You will catch yourself in positions more often seen in Cirque du Soleil. If you can afford to wait for the next train the grand total of 30 seconds, just do it. Sometimes, it might even take a few minutes, but you will find a better train. Just do it. Don’t fall for the trap of false economy.
This one may be controversial. In terms of overall cost, it’s pretty good. Insurance premiums are generally affordable, medicine is cheap and covered, and most things are affordable and covered. National health insurance is easily available at your local city office, and you can walk out with your insurance card ready to use immediately (after a potential wait in line). Some companies also offer private health insurance to their employees, some of which have benefits（福利厚生）such as travel discounts, which I found amusing.
Sometimes there seems to be a large emphasis on time efficiency, so doctors may not spend a lot of time to figure out exactly what’s wrong with you, but just enough time to prescribe you medicine and send you on your way. The waits are, in general, not very long. Depending on your luck with doctors, you may often hear 「様子を見ましょう」 or “let’s wait and see how this goes” rather than an attempt at root-causing an issue. In my limited experience with local clinics, and big university hospitals, this seems to happen quite a bit. I did have a few doctors who genuinely cared and worked to try to figure out issues, but even the best of them eventually fell back on treatment and maintaining quality of life versus continuing to explore the cause. I imagine this is a similar story the world round. At least in Tokyo you’re unlikely to go bankrupt in the process.
I like going on nightwalks, and walking around Tokyo at night is, generally speaking, safer than in major cities elsewhere. Yes, all the stuff you’ve heard about most people not stealing your items and returning them when you drop them is generally true.
Convenience stores will basically always be open. Some large chains will be open most of the day as well. If you tend to be nocturnal like me, this can be a double-edged sword. I’ll admit to more than a few late-night oden runs.
Service in Tokyo is generally fast and great. Since there’s typically no tipping system unlike in the U.S., paying bills is straightforward unless you have a big group. Also due to lack of tipping, the wait staff tends to not bother you every 5 minutes with “how is everything going, is everything ok? Are you still alive?” which is one thing I really miss about going out in Tokyo vs Silicon Valley.
The Rare Fun Stuff
What can I say? Life in Tokyo can be pretty good, and filled with amusement as a foreigner. Every once in a while, something quite weird would happen to me. Every time I would say “ok, nothing will surprise me again” and every time, I’m wrong. Now, it’s important to say, none of the below things are normal. But since people really enjoy the weird stories, here goes a few short ones.
I was walking down Nakano Avenue on the way to Nakano Station to work one morning, when suddenly a rooster starts walking out of a shop, onto the sidewalk, and headed toward the street. Then an old man slowly approaches it with both hands outstretched, trying to lead it back into his shop. Now I was quite tired that day, but I was thinking “what is going on here?” but the people around me dressed in black suits simply stopped for it like it were a traffic light, calmly waited for the rooster to go back in the shop, then just kept walking. It was then that I realized that Tokyo people are really not surprised by anything.
A girl in Yoyogi Park, a park well-known for its colorful characters, was calmly walking an iguana on a leash, herself wearing a colorful tie-dye shirt. People followed her around and took photos as she slowly made her way through the park.
Nakano is infamous for its uncontrollable amount of cats, to the point where the city office has efforts to keep the feral cat population down. I have probably a hundred photos of cats in amusing positions or places throughout the city, and greeting them was a regular part of my day.
One time in the nearby island of Enoshima, I followed a cat into a tea shop. It waited as if waiting to be sat down by the wait staff. When I sat down, it followed me and sat at the table next to me. When my tea finally came, it slowly walked onto my table and tried to take a sip. I stopped it, because I was afraid it might burn its tongue, but it had put its head almost full into my tea cup. Cats are pretty amusing all over the world, but this was a first for me.
The Girl Who Walked Through Walls
I was walking with some coworkers in Harajuku area near work when I said “I don’t think anything will surprise me now” and as I said that, a girl opened a wall, walked out, slowly closed the wall behind her, then just walked away. Even within Tokyo, Harajuku is a really strange area, but this was particularly amusing for me.
Sailor Uniform Uncle（セーラー服おじさん）
There is a man who goes around the city dressed in a sailor uniform like the kind used at some schools for a girls uniform who was popular a few years ago when I was there. At the time, I kept hearing about him on Twitter and in magazines and places, and one day I was in Kichijoji and walked out of a coffee shop. In one direction, I saw an army of people dressed in Santa Claus outfits joking loudly in Kansai-ben, and in the other direction walking at full-speed was sailor uniform uncle. I walked up to him with a friend and said hello, and he was very nice and took photos with us, and mentioned he was giving a talk in an art gallery but couldn’t find it, so we helped him look for it (is this an RPG?). Then we heard him give a talk there, and he was very knowledgable about science and philosophy, it was a great talk.
I hope you’ve enjoyed a small glimpse into life abroad in Tokyo, both the normal and the extremely rare. If these kind of things are amusing or interesting to anyone, please let me know, and I’ll do my best to cover more topics.
I could go on all day about the fun random stuff that happened to me, but I want to remind people that generally speaking, these are rare things and are definitely NOT TYPICAL. I see a lot of news about “weird Japan” all the time, and yeah, sometimes there are amusing things, but for the most part, Tokyo, while really awesome and interesting, is a city in the real world and is no stranger than New York City or Los Angeles.
That said, if you have a chance, definitely visit or live in Tokyo! It’s an amazing city with great infrastructure that’s easy to live in, and you might have some unique experiences of your own.