The more things change … the more they stay the same


Ex-Alien chief picks five phenomena from ’90s Japan that are gone but not forgotten

1. Mind the gap: This satirical advertisement was an idea for helping to reduce Japan’s enormous trade surpluses. The trade imbalance with the rest of the world during the ’90s was huge, and especially so with the U.S. due to Japan’s capturing of major segments of the car market.

Many foreign companies doing business with Japan complained about the red tape — and there was a lot — but sometimes it seemed as if they weren’t really trying to make products that actually fit the Japanese market.

The trade imbalance caused a lot of angst and was a lightning rod for politicians. While Japan still regularly has a trade surplus, it is no longer the No. 1 item at government meetings.

2. Sofa, so free: In the early ’90s most wards in Japanese cities had what was called a sodai-gomi hi (big garbage day) three or four times a year where residents could put their larger waste items out for garbage trucks to pick up — for no charge.

At the time, Japanese had disdain for anything that was secondhand, so perfectly good items frequently were just thrown out. Stereo sets, refrigerators, furniture, etc. were there for the taking.

These days Japanese are much more enthusiastic recyclers, and people who want to throw out big items need to pay a fee.

3. So far, so often: Japanese still take vacations, but during the ’90s everyone seemed to be frequently traveling overseas and going to exotic locations. The yen had been allowed to increase in value and suddenly overseas trips seemed very reasonable.

Weekend junkets to Hong Kong, four-day visits to six cities in Europe, quick trips to Disneyland in California — all were quite the norm. Many travelers brought an empty suitcase with them so they could bring back all their shopping.

Hawaii was and still is the perennial favorite, but at that time Australia was very popular too.

4. Any sensei will do: Back in the 90s the Japanese were crazy about studying English — everyone seemed to be taking classes or was looking for a private tutor. This meant that basically any Western foreigner could find a job at the various eikaiwa that sprung up all over the place.

The larger schools were always so desperate for new teachers that it seemed they would take basically any gaijin with a pulse; thus there often seemed to be one or two nerdy teachers at these larger schools. Hence the reference to Lenny or Squiggy, two dweeby side-characters that appeared on the popular U.S. “Laverne & Shirley” sitcom. These days, of course, it’s entirely different.

5. Is that a bell in your pocket?: After the regular land-line telephone and before today’s ubiquitous mobile smartphone, there was a short period of time in the 90s when a device known as the pokketoberu was at the forefront of personal communication technology.

Pocket bells, or pagers, only allowed text messages to be sent to other pocket bells, but were far more convenient than trying to arrange things from a green public phone.

Until the pocket bell, plans and schedules had to be completely decided before leaving the house, and if you were late or got lost, you were on your own. Pocket bells were a step along the way toward the interactive, Internet-led world we live in today.

Five facets of Japan life that refuse to die

1. Toilet travails: Even with all the gadgetry that goes into many toilets found in homes, restaurants and offices these days — with their heated seats, assorted sprays, various buttons and devices — most public toilets still stick with the old Japanese standard: a flat basin and a hole. This continues to confound many gaijin users.

Do you face front or back? Do your pants come off, or do they stretch between your spread legs? Shoes off or on? Even after a long time in Japan, many foreigners are still unsure of the correct way to take care of business.

2. Hailing from the right: Those black army-style trucks and vans with loudspeakers that are commonly seen and heard in cities both large and small are nothing new on the Japanese landscape. However, there seemed to be more demonstrations on a regular basis in the ’90s.

For most gaijin it’s not really clear what they are shouting about, but it sounds pretty crazy-angry. So while they are probably best avoided, lovers of marching music, like myself, still take delight whenever they drive by.

3. Still shook up: It seems that in almost all of the larger cities in Japan there has to be a group of Elvis wannabes who meet regularly on weekends to dance to ’50s tunes in a park. In Tokyo you can find them on Sundays at Yoyogi Park, in Nagoya they are at Central Park, in Osaka they hang out near Osaka Castle.

The postwar ’50s, when the economy was booming and American cultural influence was at its peak because of the U.S. Occupation, still seem to evoke nostalgia among some Japanese. And anyways, Elvis does kind of look Japanese, doesn’t he?

4. Balls of steel: Pachinko was a super-popular pastime back in the 1990s, and it seems just as popular now. The computer age brought in new gimmicks, more flashy setups were possible, and with so much money sloshing around Japan it was natural that pachinko boomed.

Even today, with new, ever-larger pachinko parlors being constructed, it seems there are still plenty of people willing to while away their time watching little balls drop in among patterns of pins and holes.

The graphic on the left is a humorous idea meant to help the salaryman who has the itch to play but can’t get away from the office.

5. Beating the heat: Pictured right is a device that allows users to have an ever-ready supply of cold drinking water during the melting heat of the Japanese summer.

Yes, even though this summer might seem like the most unbearably hot and muggy summer you can remember, in fact every summer in Japan since forever has felt like the most unbearably hot and muggy summer ever.

While the graphic was thought up just for fun, try taking a walk outside after reading this and see if you don’t think it might not be a good idea.