Welcome to a new page, welcome to a new column


Welcome to a brand new new weekly column that will provide a forum for readers to help one another, and for myself and Ken Joseph, of Japan Helpline, to help you. We will be printing your letters, offering personal input and bringing in experts on a regular basis to help answer your queries on living in, and coping with, Japan.

Japan has changed beyond recognition since this newspaper first began offering advice to readers.

On March 17 1964, under the heading “Orientation,” Jean Pearce was saying a “Farewell to Marti” — one Ellen McGarry, who was returning to the United States with her family after a decade in Japan. “It’s sure difficult for whoever takes over the column,” Jean noted.

Yet the very next week, she took up that challenge under a different heading, “Readers’ Exchange.”

Among the nuggets of advice offered was information on where to buy short skiis, locate a self-service dry-cleaning store and — wonder of wonders in the 21st century — where to get a picot edge on chiffon, a decorative dressmaking technique.

Jean kept up the good work for over 35 years, retiring in 2000, and returning to the U.S. But was there anyone before Marti?

Indeed there was. A smiling blonde writing under the name of Torie, and Reader’s By-Line. She was answering a question about a strange green horse radish served at a dinner party, described as “Quite strong but very good.”

That strange, green horseradish, Wasabi, she noted, could be purchased in “a dry form on the Japanese market and should be mixed with water and a little vinegar.” These days, of course, any good cook worth his or her salt, and this column, would advise it to be best eaten as a fresh-grated condiment.

In fact, Japan has changed immeasurably even since April 1986, when I arrived for a holiday. Sixteen years later, I have yet to go back on any permanent basis. Back then, Japan was still regarded as a hardship post.

But now, as a friend’s daughter said after traveling around the country on her own; “Arigato, no problemo.”

Improvement in tolerance and understanding has been achieved in no small way through the JET Programme, which every year brings young foreign graduates to teach in Japanese schools or work in local authorities. There are now as likely to be Africans in Hokkaido, as Indians in Kyushu, and Singaporeans on Shikoku.

That extraordinary period of affluence in the 1980s, now nicknamed the “bubble era,” also helped loosen things up, Japan-style.

Back then, in the good old days of the bubble, the big buzzword was “kokusai,” or internationalization.

Now, Japanese people themselves are more traveled and worldly. There is a lot more information in English (and indeed in other languages too, for the largest groups of non-Japanese here are Korean, Chinese, Brazilian and Filipino, not American or European).

Also there are ways and means nowadays to get hold of virtually anything that reminds you of home.

The World Cup finals, taking place from May 31st, will surely be this country’s greatest test.

Fingers crossed that everyone behaves themselves — the fans flooding in from abroad, the immigration officials and police, and the residents of those cities and towns on the receiving end of so much alien exuberance. May peace — and common sense — prevail.

So, in the midst of all this, how can we help?

If basic needs and wants are more easily supplied these days, how might this column — a column offering a friendly hand — be of help? Well, the answer to that lies squarely on your shoulders, gentle readers.

Between myself and Ken, we’ll provide both hard practical advice, and try to explain any aspect of life in Japan that you are finding it hard to understand or adapt to.

A cultural stumbling block might involve a formal first visit to a Japanese home — what to do, what not to do — or sounding off about some aspect of life or behavior you find puzzling or incomprehensible.

A practical question might involve someone worried about a flatmate taking hard drugs.

What should they do? Where can they get advice and help? What is their legal position?

Our first query, from a British reader in Mita-ku, concerns the traditional custom of paying for weddings and funerals.

“How much do I pay, and is there any way of getting out of it? I hate the way everything costs money here, even a party.”

Another reader, a newly arrived businesswoman living in Kobe, who travels on a regular basis to Tokyo, asks if any of our readers can recommend a native English-speaking doctor in both Kansai and Kanto.

“It’s not that I don’t trust Japanese doctors. Far from it, and I do speak some Japanese. It’s just that when it comes to talking about my body I feel more comfortable in my own language.”

Please let us have your responses on the topics by fax or e-mail as quickly as possible.

What’s your experience? Do you have any advice of your own?

At the same time, get the ball rolling with your own inquiries. And remember; this is your space, so please use it.