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Small Things I Like About Japan

September 30th, 2003

The norm of many foreigners in Japan (usually the short-termers) is to talk about the things that are wrong with the country, and like any country, there are indeed a lot of things wrong to focus on. But what about the better things? Well, people often mention the bigger things, like greater public safety and on-time trains. But here are a few nods of recognition for the lesser positives that are nonetheless appreciated.

English. Okay, this is not so much a small thing, but still not huge, and not acknowledged enough. When I hear people complain that English should be in more places in Japan, I think of how spoiled people tend to be; English is available in so many places, especially considering that only about half a percent of the population consists of non-Asian foreigners. In the U.S., bilingualism usually is triggered when a much more substantial portion of the populace in non-English speaking. But despite the relative sparsity of native English speakers in Japan, there is a wealth of English to help us, from signs in train stations, bilingual ATM machines, materials in city offices, English speakers at business help numbers, and more. Recently, I bought a cell phone which included an abbreviated English manual, and had the option of switching all displays into English.

Stalls in Public Toilets. Ever been sitting in a stall in a public restroom in America, and someone outside peers in at you from the crack between the door and the frame of the stall? Not exactly a comfortable moment, that. Well, in Japan, that doesn’t happen. Toilet stalls in this country were designed for privacy. The doors go all the way to the floor, and bevels on the door ensure that there is no crack for strangers to peer at you through. An added nod to privacy, though less certain as a positive because of the water it wastes, is the “courtesy flush” that men’s urinals automatically set off by infrared sensors. This masks the initial sounds, and for many people, helps get the old waterworks running as well.

Walk and Shop. The relative lack of cars as a means of popular transportation means that things tend to be more localized in Japan. In the U.S., one usually has to drive to the market, or at least suffer a long walk (well, suffer on bad weather days, at least). In Japan, things are still smaller and more localized, despite recent trends towards mall-ization. Almost anywhere you set down here, there will be some small businesses where you can get what you need. Convenience stores are everywhere. Supermarkets are more easily found. Restaurants, or at least fast-food joints, are more likely to be nearby. And vending machines, sometimes looked down upon, are nevertheless quite handy at times.

Department Store Clerks. Ever been to a department store in the U.S. where you had to hunt down a clerk to give your money to? And when you found them, you had to wait behind three or four other people buying half the store with a personal check? And forget about asking someone a question. In Japan, clerks are all over the place in department stores. Yes, less so that in the booming 80’s, but still they can commonly be found, usually just by standing where you are and turning 360 degrees or less. It’s only at the high-volume stores like Yodobashi Camera, or the lower-cost value stores like home centers, that you have to really look for someone to ask a question–but even at these places, there is no shortage of cashiers.

More to come as I keep my eyes open for them–and that would be a good thing for all of us to be on the lookout for here in Japan–the little things that make life easier here, that usually go unappreciated.

Anyone have observations they’d like to contribute?

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