It’s not easy being an expat. While most of us choose to live in Japan of our own volition, there are still times when we’re frustrated with the way things work — or don’t work — and the Community page often serves as an outlet for our gripes.
On this page we have, over the years, pondered squat toilets, table charges, the rigid Japanese education system and why in the world we have to wait till 9 a.m. for the gym to open. Then there is the ongoing debate about English in Japan and why the Japanese can’t seem to get a better handle on this seemingly universal language, why the education system has been so slow in adopting English and why there aren’t more English signs to help tourists who don’t speak Japanese (or Chinese signs, to be honest).
If you were to look further afield than the countries and cultures of the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom — nations where English is the native language and the majority of the people are monolingual — we might start seeing that some of the grievances of the foreign community here in Japan aren’t so unique to this country. The following is a light-hearted account of my own eye-opening experiences while traveling across mainland Europe for the past two months — keep in mind those common expat gripes about Japan as you read on.
Gripe No. 1: No English
Living in Japan, I often hear it said that Europeans speak at least four languages. English, French and German are at the top of the list, as well as any one of a number of others such as Italian, Spanish, Dutch, etc. So what’s wrong with the Japanese?
While the Europeans we meet in Japan may be polyglots, they should not be seen as representative of the average European. The people we meet here happen to be the Europeans most likely to speak multiple languages: college graduates, educators, travelers and those who need language for business. If a monolingual English speaker travels through an area of mainland Europe that is not a major tourist area (and sometimes even if it is), don’t expect many to speak English either, even though they undoubtedly studied it at school. Getting off the beaten track will lead you further and further away from English communication.
Gripe No. 2: The signage
While this is changing rapidly as the nation prepares for the tourist invasion commensurate with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, I’ve found that there are also very few English signs in continental Europe. The only time I saw English pamphlets, menus, signs or explanations was at well-known tourist spots (and even then they were often poorly translated).
On the roads, I saw no signs in English at all. Just like when you’re driving on the highway in Japan and see a sign that says “出口” — even if you have no idea what it means, you can deduce from the arrow underneath the kanji pointing off to the side that 出口 (deguchi) means “exit.” Now imagine anyone who doesn’t speak German driving in Austria and spotting the word “Ausfahrt” on the road. Without an arrow pointing off the highway, not many would realize that this playful-sounding word, rather appropriately, also means “exit.” In fact, fahrt, which is derived from fahren (to drive/move), is ubiquitous enough that once you start noticing it you’ll see it all over the place. Much in the same way travelers to Japan may become familiar with the kanji “口” (kuchi), which is used in 出口 and 入口 (iriguchi, entrance), one deduces that “Ausfahrt” and “Einfahrt” are also opposites.
In addition, there are many words that may be confusing to people who have studied English as a second language because of false associations. The French word for “exit” is “sortie,” which in English means a military attack or a foray into something unknown. In Italy, if you get excited spotting a sign that says “Galleria!” expecting a shopping mall ahead, you’ll be sorely disappointed to find you’re only being advised of an approaching tunnel. And while “police” is “polizia” in Italian, I was followed by a “carabinier” for 20 minutes before I realized it too was a police car. Don’t know what a coperto is? Well, well, read on!
Gripe No. 3: Table charges
The non-Japanese people I know loathe Japan’s o-tōshi, the mandatory fee charged for sitting down in some restaurants or bars. It doesn’t matter whether you want to pay it or not, the obligatory fee is added to your bill. This ¥300 to ¥500 charge is offset by providing a small appetizer once you take your seat.
Well, Italy has something similar called a “coperto.” This €2 to €3 charge (¥250 to ¥374) covers the basket of bread (or bread sticks) they serve you before the meal or with your main course. The only difference is that, by Italian law, when there is a coperto it must be noted somewhere on the menu.
Gripe No. 4: Squat toilets
While squat toilets are not as common in mainland Europe as they used to be, as in Japan, off-the-beaten track locations still have these beauties — and many of them look brand new! In Italy, I found them most often at ski resorts. If you can’t squat — which is even more difficult in ski boots — you’re out of luck because there isn’t a token sit-down toilet offered in each lavatory like there often is in Japan.
Gripe No. 5: Opening hours
While Japanese shops tend to open late in the morning and close by 7 p.m., rankling the ire of those of us who are already in the office by 8 a.m. and stay at work till late, it’s worth remembering that several places in Europe (not just Spain) take a two- or three-hour siesta at lunchtime. Tourist information offices, small supermarkets — even gas stations go into self-service mode (with a machine, so you’ll have to swipe a credit card to fill up your tank).
The problem with such a long lunch break is that even though you have a decent chunk of time off from your work to get errands done, everyone else is on their lunch break too, so that to-do list will just get longer.
Gripe No. 6: Exam hell
As many of us non-Japanese residents are English teachers and parents, we are all too familiar with the pressures of the Japanese public education system. My Canadian friend who is teaching English in Switzerland is raising three children of his own in the Swiss school system.
“My 9-year-old’s next big state-wide exam determines whether she should go to university or whether she should take an apprenticeship,” he tells me. “By age 12, most students are sorted this way.”
His concern as a parent “is the amount of pressure put on such young children, as well as being able to pinpoint the test that changed their lives.”
Perhaps it’s time for us non-Japanese residents to be a little more worldly when it comes to making peevish complaints about Japan’s idiosyncratic ways that are, in fact, much more widespread. But far be it from me to stand in the way of a good venting session.
Amy Chavez is the author of “Amy’s Guide to Best Behavior in Japan: Do it Right and Be Polite!” (Stone Bridge Press).