Japan: Moving to my childhood future Utopia?

August 29, 2019
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    My 6 biggest surprises about moving to the land of the rising sun

    While we nearly all grow into a different person from what we imagined we would be as a naive 10 year old, we are ultimately shaped by whatever bible we listen to most at that age. For many, it’s a literal bible, whichever religion they have grown up around. For others, it’s the way of life/code of conduct of whatever group they identify as.   For me, a child growing up in an isolated rural Christian community in England in the late 80s/ early 90s, my bible could not be more obvious. My bible was Star Trek: The Next Generation.   Of course, as a kid, I was captivated by the technology, the aliens, the idea of navigating the stars and discovering things never seen before. But the thing that Star Trek does is sneak in philosophical and morality tales between its explosions and space ships.   It’s impossible for me to be certain, but I am fairly confident that watching Star Trek: The Next Generation as a child played a huge part in shaping how I approach ethical and moral dilemmas as an adult.   A world where humans aren’t shackled by the need to make money, their careers driven by doing what’s right and helping others, certainly contrasts where we currently are – but that was also the case at the time – Star Trek was, and always will be, an aspirational utopia. We are more likely to invent Warp Drive in the next 300 years than we are to consign the pursuit of Dollars, Euros, Yen or Bitcoin to the history books.   That naive 10-year-old I described in the opening chapter almost certainly didn’t imagine moving to the other side of the world to marry and live with his Japanese wife. Actually, he thought he was going to be a comic book artist – and four years later he was convinced he was going to be the world’s richest man after graduating from the top college at Cambridge University, so it’s fair to say my path somewhat deviated.   Given that I delayed going to University for 15 years, didn’t end up going to Cambridge, and am far from being the world’s richest man, it’s safe to say that my 14-year-old self would be somewhat disappointed in me. However, my present, 36-year-old self is not. I could throw the usual clichés about being married to a wonderful wife and a lovely home – and those things are all true – but ultimately it’s also because my sense of values are different to what I thought they were as a child.   I’m also starting an adventure, like in Star Trek, living in an environment that’s complete new to me, in many different ways. It’s my first time living in another country. I’m living in a country where English is not widely spoken. I’m living in a country where I’m a minority. I’ve gone from living in a Northern European climate to a tropical climate with high temperatures and high humidity, and I’ve gone from living in the rural city of Norwich, East Anglia, to living in a densely packed conurbation of over 20 million people.   This is my away-mission to an alien planet.   Everyone has heard of Japan and has an image of the country in their head – usually built from the same tropes: the land of robots, advanced gadgets, game consoles, Godzilla, anime, manga, sushi, hi-tech cars, Pokémon, ninjas, samurai, katanas, advanced technology… to name a few.   While I’ve only spent about 5 months in Japan, spread out over the last 3 years, I’ve already started to get an idea about what’s accurate and what’s not and while it’s certainly too early to start making conclusive statements – it is certainly apparent that if you come to Japan expecting it to be a futuristic, high technology environment you will be in for a shock.  

    Number 1: It’s still a very cash-based economy.

    Coming from Europe, where signing your credit card stopped being a thing 15 years ago, and contactless cards have been common for nearly five years, it’s been a total shock to find so many places only accept cash. And I don’t mean, that they don’t accept my foreign credit card, they don’t even accept my wife’s Japanese issued cards.  

    Number 2: What’s Wi-Fi?

    If Japan ever introduces a kanji for “free public wifi” it will be the Starbucks logo, as that’s about the only place you can reliably expect to find any. While it has slowly become more common compared to when I visited in 2016, unless you are in a major chain or the centre of one of the major cities, don’t expect to be able to go online.  

    Number 3: So much waste, so few trash bins, such little litter

    I think it’s well known that Japan is a clean country, with little litter. The city I came from in the UK was a clean city, but after living in Japan, when I go back, I feel like I’m wading through trash in comparison. It’s also reasonably well known that public trash bins aren’t really a thing in Japan.   But what has been a surprise for me has been just how much waste is generated in Japan. Back in the UK there has been a trend to cut down on all the extraneous crap that you get. Shops have to charge for plastic bags instead of giving them for free, cafes are giving discounts for reusable cups, people are trying to cut down on buying things in plastic bottles, plastic straws are being phased out…. but in Japan it’s a question of “How many individually plastic wrapped pieces of plastic cutlery do you want with your disposable convenience store sandwich which comes in plastic and is given to you in a plastic bag?”.   For balance, I should point out that Japan does have one of the best records for recycling in the developed world… but based on my – admitted subjective – experience, they have an awful lot more to recycle!  

    Number 4: Japan makes the USA look like amateurs at capitalism

    The narrative of the cold war was the USSR vs the USA, Communism vs Capitalism, East vs West. So, it’s somewhat ironic that Japan, the most “East” country in the northern hemisphere on the standard world map view, is the most capitalist country that I have ever been to.   You wouldn’t think it at first, I mean, there’s no tipping. (Really, not a yen. Ever. It’s a huge insult to tip someone in Japan. Do not do it.) – However, scratch a little deeper and it becomes a little more obvious.   One of the hallmarks of US capitalism has been the death of independent shops in favour of homogenised chains. Everyone knows the big ones, like McDonalds, Burger King, Starbucks, Subway. But America is so chain heavy, people have their favourite chain restaurant like it’s a pop band.   Despite that, people still lament the loss of the locally owned businesses, even if they continue to shun their local burger joint for Five Guys.   And that’s where it’s different in Japan. Because they still have the chains, and their chains are everywhere. You’ll quickly get to know the holy trinity of convenience stores (FamilyMart, 7/11 and Lawsons) you’ll see all the US chains such as McDonalds and Starbucks, the national supermarket chains… you’ll even notice the same branding of the different vending machine companies.   Japan does branding. Not in the subtle, auteur style hipster way that you see being done by international brands. They beat you over the head with it, branding by rote.   You’ll know you are in a Family Mart even if you are blind. Why? Because the store plays the Family Mart 8 bit jingle every time you walk in, like you just entered the Sandwich Zone in Sonic 1 on the Sega Genesis.   And it doesn’t stop there. Do you know what the biggest media franchise in the world is? No, Star Wars is fifth at $65 billion dollars. The biggest is Pokemon at $90 billion dollars. Do you know what the second biggest is? It’s Hello Kitty at $80 billion dollars. In 6th place, just behind Star Wars at $60 billion, nearly double the value of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is a Japanese children’s superhero called Anpanman that you’ve probably never heard of.   If you look down the list, it is full of internationally obscure Japanese media franchises that have been hugely successful.   And for the record, this is not a commentary of whether this is a good or a bad thing – but just as Japan visited the west to learn how to make trains, and now they make trains better than anyone else in the world – after learning how to do capitalism from the West there is no doubt they are schooling us on that too.  

    Number 5: The Internet is from 1996

    I’m not talking about Internet speeds. On the whole, the Internet infrastructure is quite good here. I’m talking about the websites.   For one thing, most small businesses don’t have a website, and if they do it looks like they’ve yet to discover Geocities level technology. Even the big companies have horrible low-resolution websites that would looked dated on Windows XP.   International companies like Starbucks have fancy responsive, HTML5 websites for every other market, but on Starbucks Japan you get some clunky, low-resolution version that looks like it was designed for dial up.   It’s not just the websites – it’s IT in general. Japanese people take good care of things which means their old technology still works. You’ve probably heard of the second-hand games console stores in Tokyo you can visit, full of 30-year-old games consoles where even the cardboard box looks like it was manufactured yesterday. It’s as though that same care extends to the copy of Excel ‘97 that’s maintaining the company product catalogue.   It also extends from the Japanese culture of wanting to work for a big company. Japan has many, many big and old companies. Donkey Kong may be 40 years old, but Nintendo is 130 years old. But this culture is changing as many Japanese Millennials who worked and studied abroad have returned to Japan and created their own start-ups.   Although still in the early stages, these companies are prime to disrupt the Japanese economy and force the giants to adapt or die. Coupled with Japan’s hosting of several major international events (such as the Rugby World Cup, and the 2020 Summer Olympics) as well as signals from the current Japanese government that it wants to be more welcoming to economic migrants, Japan could be on the brink of a digital revolution. Japan has been one of Shopify’s fastest growing regions, which is a sign that revolution has already started.   While I came to Japan due to my own personal circumstances, as a software engineer and web developer, I feel I could not have arrived at a more fortuitous time…  

    Number 6: Japan is the Future that Star Trek: The Next Generation imagined we would have

    When Star Trek: The Next Generation was being made, we didn’t have Wi-Fi. We didn’t have apps, we didn’t have Apple Pay. While it’s entirely probable that the writers could have imagined them if they had been tasked to flesh out the show completely realistically, ultimately an Apple Watch isn’t going to defeat the Borg (Star Trek isn’t Independence Day) – and they were writing a future that people from 1990 would understand and relate to.   So, when I walk around Japan, while I miss my ability to buy a coffee with NFC on my smartphone, I don’t actually feel like I’m in a primitive backwards society. Japan may not be on the cutting edge of technology, but it’s clean, it’s safe and it’s incredibly well developed.   Coming from the UK and being fortunate enough to have travelled to several countries, I’ve never gone to another country and felt like my country was behind. When I’ve visited the USA or Germany – things have felt equivalent. There are some things that are better in other countries (water pressure) but other things that are better in the UK. It’s all generally at the same level.   At least until I visited Japan.   Japan does infrastructure like no other country on earth. If there’s a chance one person will use a foot bridge, they’ll build it. And then they’ll not just build it, they’ll keep it well maintained. You remember those 30-year-old games consoles that look better than new? Well the shopping mall next to the train station in my local city celebrated its 30th anniversary this year and it looks like it was built last year. Except for the styling. It looks so 80s. But if you were still actually in the 1980s.   So maybe that is why – despite moving to such a fundamentally different environment to the one I lived in my whole life – I’m not feeling homesick. While I’ve not been here before, I have been here before. I’m on one of the many worlds in the United Federation of Planets. Complete with maglev trains, endless skyscrapers, and robot concierges. Just no Apple Pay outside of major cities.

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