Japan has come a long way in the past 20 years. Or has it? Here are some things that used to be acceptable to do (or see) in Japan when I arrived in the early 1990s. You decide which is better: now or then.
1. In the “Help Wanted” section of this newspaper, it was common practice to list jobs for males and females separately.
2. In state schools, boys’ names were listed on the school roll before girls’ names. This was said to be just a “coincidence,” and not a sign of giving priority to boys (no, no, of course not), but you have to wonder why they’d have either group before the other rather than just listing them alphabetically. This “coincidence” has since been rectified, however, and now all names appear alphabetically.
3. Until April 2002, public school students attended classes every Saturday. A six-day school week was the norm.
4. It was acceptable for parents to drink beer at school events such as sports festivals.
5. Beer vending machines graced every street corner, and there was nothing wrong with this! Then, in the year 2000, liquor store owners around the nation felt obliged to support a new “voluntary ban” on machine sales of alcohol. There’s never been much of a stigma to drinking in Japan, so the disappearance of so many of these iconic machines is like witnessing a vanishing heritage. (Sniffle.)
6. Drinking coffee at a cafe was a luxury. If you think Starbucks coffee is expensive, I can only laugh at you wholeheartedly. In Japan’s coffee and tea shops, whether in the countryside or in Ginza, it was completely normal to pay ¥500 (then about $4.20) for a coffee served in a dainty gold-rimmed China cup only three-quarters full.
Of course, that ¥500 was paying not only for the expensive bone china cups with rural English scenes on them (each one different), but also the privilege of sitting on red velvet-upholstered chairs while breathing in secondhand smoke. Remembering these dank coffee houses, it’s no wonder Starbucks is so popular: At least they limit themselves to just a couple of upholstered chairs.
7. It was normal, if not de rigueur, to drive on an international driver’s permit/license for as long as you wanted, without ever obtaining a Japanese license. But starting in 2002 (is anyone beginning to despise the turn of the century as much as I am right now?), with changes to the Japan Traffic Act, it is now a requirement that you procure a Japanese driver’s license after just one year driving on an international permit. And best of luck passing the impossibly strict Japanese driving test!
8. When I came to Japan (in 1993), most cars were white. It was crazy — you’d look down the street and all the cars would be just plain white! No green cars, no red cars, no Hello Kitty cars. And, many people left the plastic covers on the seats of their new cars when they bought them, too.
Harold Archer, who works for Toyota Motor Sales and Marketing Corp., provides an explanation: “Yes, white cars were best for resale value.” The same concern was behind leaving the seat covers on to protect the upholstery. But of course, not all cars were white . . .
9. There were black Lincoln Town Cars, Cadillacs and Mercedes-Benz S-Class vehicles — driven by gangsters! These drivers wore white dress shoes, gobs of shiny jewelry, sunglasses, and sported punch perms! Nowadays the yakuza is much more discrete.
10. Taxi drivers and others would, when stopped at an intersection at nighttime, turn off their headlights. When the light turned green they’d flip the headlights back on. Usually. There’d always be someone who’d drive a few hundred meters down the road terrifying oncoming traffic before realizing he hadn’t turned his headlamps back on. So actually, it was pretty dangerous.
Why did people do this? Most of us thought it was to be polite — not wanting to shine lights in the faces of those waiting on the opposite side of the intersection. Archer, however, offers a different reason: “To save juice for the car battery. Now of course, car generators, alternators and batteries themselves are much better, so there is no need for concern.”
11. Until the year 2000, foreign residents were obligated to have their fingerprint on their foreign registration card (or “gaijin card”). This practice was abolished as a result of a “fingerprinting movement” that started in the 1980s, led by those who felt the requirement infringed upon their human rights. In 1999, the law was changed, but it didn’t actually take effect until the following year.
Ironically, fingerprinting is back (but not on foreign registration cards), as countries all over the world take pictures of not just one but often several of your digits when you enter their country. Japan also added this to their Immigration Control Law in 2007 (although you can skirt the issue if you hold special permanent residence status).
12. Sodai Gomi no Hi — Big Garbage Day — was something to look forward to, because on this day, once a month, it was like winning the lottery. The Japanese were well-known for buying the latest electronics, but to make room in their small houses for the latest and greatest stereo or TV, they had to dispose of the old ones (which were still relatively new). Since there were few used appliance stores or recycle shops then, most people tossed out perfectly good (and expensive) electronics on Big Garbage Day.
And foreigners were taking notice! Every other block hosted a pile of stereos, vacuum cleaners, furniture and TVs. Then, at the appropriate hour — usually after dark, because you felt weird carting off expensive electronics in broad daylight — you’d make your move and attempt to nonchalantly lug large stereo systems and TVs back to your apartment, hoping no one would notice.
Sodai gomi is dealt with differently now. Since 2001, local authorities started charging a recycling fee to put out large items (up to ¥3,000 for a TV, and ¥5,000 for a fridge — that’s $25 to $42). As a result, some stingy people dump these items in rivers or forests to avoid paying the fees.
A lot has happened in Japan in the past 20 years, indicating a decided shift in the zeitgeist. Sexism may be less blatant, alcohol slightly less ubiquitous, cars more colorful and schoolchildren a bit less busy, but are we all happier?
Japan Lite appears in print on the fourth Thursday Community Page of the month. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org
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