Archive for the ‘Focus on Japan 2005’ Category

Japan Fun Fact #9: Apartment Hunting, Part II

January 27th, 2005 17 comments

All of the experiences I outlined in my last post about apartment-hunting were from the 1980’s. Those were heady days for Japan, when it was the nation of the future, buying up everything and set to take over the world economically. Japan was feeling its oats a lot more, and there was a lot more conflict, especially in trade, with the United States. Japan was the country of success–in business, in education, in a safe society; the United States, and other countries, were seen in a more adversarial light than today, and foreigners were seen more as a threat, commonly represented in media as violent, criminal, or diseased, a contrast to Japan.

Then came the 90’s. Aum Shinrikyo and the subway gassings. Children killing children in the schools. Horrific stories being told about domestic crime in the press. And, of course, the bursting of the bubble economy. Japan’s ego took several palpable hits, and the recession kept going and going and going. America retook the computer industry, Japan was no longer seen as the juggernaut, and Japan’s markets opened and Japan’s ironclad grip on the future of the world economy seemed like a strange illusion of yesterday. Suddenly, Japan was no longer on top of the world–the economy sputtered, and crime seemed to spike at home. In short, things changed. The national ego lessened, the feelings of superiority ebbed, and the adversarial atmosphere thinned.

Those changes were also reflected in how foreigners were regarded. Less and less were we threatening aliens who were taking over sumo and baseball; less and less were we icons of crime and disease. Or, perhaps, more and more Japan focused on its own ills. Japan is kind of like that, in extremes when it comes to international comparisons–either it sees itself on top of everything, or on the bottom, to overstate the matter perhaps a bit.

Not that this changed much immediately in the early 90’s when I came back to Japan and looked for an apartment anew, but it changed things somewhat. The real change was much more apparent when I returned again in the late 90’s. I heard a lot fewer stories about foreigners being stopped on the street and asked for ID, or accused of having stolen their bicycles. The media represents foreigners in a far less negative light today. And apartment hunting similarly became easier.

By the time I left Japan for the second time in 1995, I had lived in five apartments: two in Toyama and three in Tokyo, the last one secured in 1993. I had also found an apartment for my brother when he moved here (I used the same agent who had pushed for me in finding my own apartment). In every case, I found myself up against the rather formidable “gaijin wa dame” element.

When I returned in 1998, things had noticeably changed. Though I was looking for an apartment in much the same areas, I found a lot less resistance, and a lot more possibilities. This time, I found a place just a ten-minute bicycle ride away from that first cockroach-infested dump in Asagaya, but this place was a lot nicer. It cost a little more, but for the price, it was much nicer. Two seven-tatami-plus rooms, plus the kitchen/bath areas, but also a nicely-built three-unit apartment with a rather kind landlady living with her family on the second floor, just five minutes’ walk from an express station on the Seibu Shinjuku line just 12 minutes out from Shinjuku. And this I found after only a very brief search that lasted only a few days, not a few weeks. The agencies I visited along the way were much more accommodating than the ones I had experienced five years and more before, and I had several units to choose from despite the brevity of my search.

After two years, however, I decided to move up. The job I had originally been hired for changed–soon after I had moved into my new place, I was promoted from newbie EFL instructor to the coordinator and effective dean of the academic department of the college–a change that shocked me, but which I happily accepted, and it came with a nice increase in pay, needless to say. I stayed in the first apartment more through inertia than anything else, but after two years, I faced the familiar one-month’s-rent gift money fee, and I also was getting tired of bumping into furniture when I had to get up and move around at night. So I started looking again.

Let me stray from the narrative a bit here so I can explain a bit more about apartment hunting in Japan. First off is cost, and cost is determined roughly by a formula which includes the chief variables of distance from central Tokyo, distance from the local train station, and the size of the apartment, though not necessarily in that order. Go far out from central Tokyo and rent a small place 15 minutes away from the station by bus, and you can get it for a pittance; the reverse will be costly. Some train lines are more expensive than others as well: the Chuo Line, for example, can be pretty pricey, and express stops are at a premium. If you can walk to the local train station in a few minutes, that’ll cost you. It matters a lot more than what shops or schools may be nearby, as most people commute by train in Japan. Proximity to town can also mean a lot to people; some cannot stand having to commute long distances to get to work every day; that can be a deal-breaker for many. The trade-off is for size, and that’s what I’ve chosen myself; It’s a 45-minute-to-one-hour commute to work from where I am, but I have a nice, spacious place.

Size of apartments in Japan is usually measured by square meters, and room sizes are measure in tatami mats (thatched straw mats three feet by six feet in size), even if the room in question does not use tatami mats. Tatami can be nice–softer than hardwood floors and less prone to be cold–but they also have their drawbacks, in that they don’t last too many years, and often are home to small bugs.

3A standard room size is six tatami mats, or nine by twelve feet–a smallish room, especially if that’s the only real room of your apartment. Standard studio apartments in Japan will consist of a single 6-mat room with a small kitchen area, a bath room and a toilet room (or both bath and toilet combined in a pre-fab “unit bath”). No room for a western-style bed without serious crowding, so a futon is used. Not like many futons in the U.S., which are often thicker and more rigid, Japanese futons are more like thick, heavy blankets than mattresses, and are folded up and put in large two-tiered cupboard/closets during the day, leaving space for moving around and the like. The image at right illustrates this kind of room, the double doors in back being the cupboard/closet.

The apartment I had in Tokyo in the mid-90’s had a six-tatami room and a three-tatami room; the three tatami room (six feet by nine feet) was pretty much just enough for a futon to be laid out in. Eight-tatami rooms (twelve feet square) are considered fairly spacious in Japan. See this page for standard tatami layout patterns. Newer apartments have hardwood floors more often, though multi-room apartments often have one tatami room.

Another way to measure the size of apartments is by room counts. In this system, L is a living room, D is a dining room, and K is a kitchen. Often they are combined to read LDK, especially if they are in fact one room. Additional rooms are represented by number. If there is just one room, it is called so: a one-room (studio) apartment. A 1LDK would be one room plus a living-dining-kitchen room, or what in the U.S. would be called a one-bedroom apartment.

Other considerations for apartments in Japan include the age of the building (chikunen); if the building is more than, say, twenty years old, it is much less desirable. The construction type is also important–you have apartments and mansions. “Mansion” doesn’t mean the same thing here as in the U.S.–a Japanese mansion is like a condo, as they are more often bought than rented. The building is usually much more solidly constructed–thick concrete walls and floors, for example, rather than the thinner, shoddy walls found so commonly in apartments.

Okay, back to the story. When I got tired of the apartment I had lived in since arriving in Tokyo, I decided I would be willing to spend a bit more and live farther out in order to get more space. After searching for a while (I had more time to hunt this time), I found the place I was looking for when an acquaintance clued me in on public housing. I’m still not entirely sure exactly how “public” it is, but I get the feeling that it is more publicly-subsidized than publicly-owned. They used to be called Toshi Kodan (都市公団), or the Urban Development Corporation, but sometime last year they changed to Toshi Kikou (都市機構, or “Urban Renaissance”), and I have no idea what that signifies.

But what it mean for apartment hunting is just what I was looking for. First of all, you don’t go to a real estate agent for these places–you go straight to the local UR office. That means no paying one month’s rent for the agent. Second, and more significantly, because it is not a regular landlord, that means no gift money, a huge advantage. And finally, it’s government-related, so that mean they can never say “gaijin wa dame“–you don’t even need a guarantor! I just walked into the office, asked to see a place, and then reserved it once I found I liked it. You do have to certify that you can earn enough to pay for the place, show some tax forms or the like, and there’s a bit more paperwork than the usual apartment requires. And there is still a deposit–a bit steeper than usual, three months’ rent–but that’s refundable. Moving in was just the deposit and first month’s rent.

Also, the building I got was a mansion type, meaning great walls and floors–there’s a couple who live right next door, and they have an infant. I never hear it, not even a bit. At most, I’ll hear people upstairs banging around a bit, but not often and it’s not loud. My previous place was so un-sound-proofed that every time my smoking next-door neighbor went to the bathroom, I could hear him go, even when he didn’t loudly hawk and spit into the toilet. The soundproofing in my new place also means that I can play music or have the TV on at high volume even late at night, and I never have to worry; I’ve asked neighbors if they can hear anything, and they say nothing gets through.

But the best part of the new place is the size: 84 square meters, almost double my older room. All hardwood floors, it consists of an 8-mat-size master bedroom, a 4.5-mat second bedroom, a large genkan (vestibule, or whatever) leading to a toilet room and a bath room off a small dressing room with sink and mirror, and then the big “LDK-plus” area–an 8-mat living room, 4.5-mat dining room, 4-mat kitchen and 6-mat extra room, all in one large joined area (no doors, but a few interior walls). And that does not include the walk-in closet (albeit a small one). If you want to take a look, I have the layout and some photos of the place I made before I moved in.

Then there’s the rent–at ¥136,000 when I moved in, it was low for such a big apartment–but then something strange happened: it went down. Usually it’s supposed to be the reverse, but not with this place. After a year, it went down to ¥131,800, then ¥127,200, then to ¥123,400, and this year it’s ¥119,800. All this despite the fact that the apartments are almost completely occupied, more than when I first moved in. And there’s also no contract renewal fee–just another rent decrease. Bizarre. Great, but bizarre.

I’ll likely stay here until I buy into a new place, either a mansion or a house–which will lead to a whole new level of possible conflicts, including taking out a loan, which I kind of dread. But, as I like to say, I’ll burn that bridge when I come to it.

Japan News, January 25th 2005

January 25th, 2005 11 comments

Some interesting news items about Japan recently:

Highlighting Japan’s reluctance to take in immigrants is this story about Japan deporting U.N.-recognized Kurdish refugees back to Turkey despite the fact that they will likely be persecuted there. In response to sharp international criticism, Japan belatedly allowed five of them, the mother and children, to stay in Japan–for one additional month only–after the two adult males, the father and eldest son, were sent packing. Not that Japan has always been the choice of immigrants, anyway–I recall hearing that when Japan has, in the past, opened its doors to refugees, though in far smaller numbers than other countries, few refugees choose Japan as the destination of choice. Even when other countries’ much larger quotas get mobbed, Japan’s quota has remained unfilled (though I don’t have a source on that).

Meanwhile, there is argument over the privatization of Japan’s postal system. I have to admit that wasn’t even on my radar. Many do not know that Japan’s post office is not just a post office–they also sell insurance and are the nation’s largest bank–in fact, it is the world’s largest bank, with trillions of dollars in savings and assets. When you go to a post office in Japan, there are windows for mail and others for banking and other services.

Under the privatization plan, the post office would be split into four groups (banking, insurance, and then mail services would somehow be divided into two different sections), but all four would remain connected under an umbrella organization–presumably so they can remain operating in the same locations instead of having to split the 24,000 post offices between them and opening up huge numbers of new offices. The privatization would begin in 2007 and be complete by 2017. The 290,000 workers for the post office would be transformed into private-sector jobs, which many are unhappy about, but it would also cut the federal payroll by a whopping 30% of its total.

It’s still not a done deal, but one way or another, it will almost certainly happen. The effects are anyone’s guess, though many see it as a sop to the banking and parcel delivery services, which would gain from lessened competition–since today the Japanese post office is not taxed, and has fewer restrictions than private commercial institutions. The claim that this privatization will benefit consumers is dubious at best.

The head of NHK, the government-owned broadcasting corporations, is being forced to step down after some scandals dogged his career. In Japan, every TV market has NHK as two of its stations–General and Educational channels, usually channels 1 and 3 on the dial–which are operated by the government. Broadcast satellite also has two NHK channels. Most foreign residents are familiar with NHK primarily as the organization that sends people to your door demanding that you pay a monthly fee for the NHK service, whether you watch it or not. They say you have to pay, but if you don’t there is no penalty. As for me, I refuse to pay for what is essentially a propaganda arm of the Japanese government, even if I did watch it–which I do not.

NHK is not like PBS in the U.S.–NHK is much more closely related to the government. As a case in point, the latest scandal was over an NHK documentary about sex slaves during Japan’s occupation of Korea. Some politicians–predictably–did not like the subject matter, and pressured NHK to censor parts of the broadcast, which it did.

Not that this is really shocking or worse than other countries, of course; actually, I think that at this time, American media are far more influenced by political pressure than NHK is.

North Korean residents in Japan are fearful of how the Japanese population will treat them as relations with North Korea are not going well, There have been many unsavory incidents including assaults on North Koreans–particularly high school students in recognizable garb. Much of the resentment stems from North Korea’s admission that they did indeed kidnap perhaps a dozen Japanese citizens some decades ago in order to use them to train North Korean spies bound for Japan.

Of course, there is rather supreme irony here, in that Japan has been incredibly obstinate in apologizing for or making reparations for its 35-year occupation of Korea, the kidnapping of hundreds of thousands of Koreans to Japan for forced labor, or using their women as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during the war. But a dozen kidnappings of Japanese by North Korea has Japan inflamed. I guess that there’s a 60-year statute of limitations or something.

Japanese citizens seem just as pessimistic about Bush’s second term as I am. In their man-on-the-street interviews, Japan Today printed eight responses to the question of whether things will get better or worse under Bush in the next four years. Three of the eight pleaded ignorance and refrained from opining, but the other five were less reticent:

“Of course, the world will be more dangerous. Bush is ferocious. He is for armed force and so I’m sure we will see more bloodshed and death in the next four years.”

“There is absolutely no way that the world will be safer. I don’t think Bush will withdraw his troops from Iraq. He won’t give in until he gets what he wants. Things will just get worse and worse. The Americans will see hell sooner or later.”

“I think the world will be more dangerous because of Bush. I don’t like the whole Bush family and the new administration. But since half the U.S. elected him, apparently they are not fed up with war yet. They still want to fight more. That’s a scary thought.”

Finally, every year, some institutions make predictions about the future. Also from Japan Today is the report on one magazine’s predictions, which include:

Global warming and the heat island effect will torment Tokyo even more this summer than they did last. Look for temperatures of 45 degrees and clouds of “killer bugs” breeding in the congenial torpor. AIDS will spread. Suicide, too, will rise among retiring baby boomers who have lost their reason for living, and among younger people who feel they never had one.

Gloom and doom indeed. 45 degrees C? That’s 113 degrees F! And swarms of killer bugs, eh? Here comes the apocalypse!

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Japan Fun Fact #7: Vending machines

January 18th, 2005 4 comments


You’ve probably heard about all kinds of crazy vending machines in Japan, like those that sell jewelry, hot lunches and even schoolgirls’ underwear–but the fact is, such machines are pretty rare. That’s not to say that vending machines are rare in Japan–quite the opposite. Aside from scattered cigarette butts in the street, they are perhaps the most ubiquitous sight in Japan. And while most are for soft drinks (including water, coffee and tea) and most of the rest are for cigarettes, there is still a fair number that are for alcoholic beverages (and still fewer, though no less noticeable, for condoms, usually located outside pharmacies). One such alcoholic vending machine set is pictured above, though only beer is sold from it (some offer saké and/or bottles of whisky).

Now, you would think that such publicly available and unpoliced vending machines would be an open invitation to minors to buy and consume alcohol–and you’d pretty much be right. The only measure taken to safeguard against such things is that the machines automatically turn off at 11:00pm. Which, if you ask me, is pretty stupid–as if that’s the time after which minors are mostly out and about? What’s to keep a 15-year-old from buying up drinks at 10:30?

But, as I said, most vending machines are for drinks, and yes, they are everywhere. It is hard to go several blocks without seeing a cluster of them, and they are not just outside convenience stores and other shops. You’ll find them everywhere. Even on Mt. Fuji. In fact, the vending machines on Mt. Fuji are an excellent way to keep track of your progress up the mountain: the higher you go, the more expensive the drinks become, from normal prices at the fifth station starting point, until you pay 300 yen for a drink at the peak (at least that was the price when I last climbed).

A few small notes about Japanese vending machines: first, there are no snack or candy vending machines. I don’t know why. And second, in my experience, they never have problems with old paper money. Every American knows quite well that if you try to put a beat-up dollar-bill into a vending machine, you have to unfold the corners, feed it into the slot repeatedly, and pray real hard. Never had that problem in Japan.

Yowza–This F/O Is Fast

January 9th, 2005 Comments off

One piece of evidence that the new fiber optic Internet connection I just got is indeed blazing: I tested large downloads from big-name sites, both Apple and Microsoft, and got the following measure:


The download was about 300 MB and took a little more than 100 seconds–almost 3 MB per second, or 24 Mbps. Not too shabby at all. Unfortunately, not everyone has such a high-speed upload connection, meaning that while I can potentially get 45 Mbps, I really won’t, unless I download simultaneously from several sources–something which does not often happen. But it’s nice to have the speed. For example, movie trailers from Apple’s site come down about 3 or 4 times faster than I can watch them.

And the difference, the contrast between now and 4 years ago when I was limited to ISDN at 64 Kbps, feeling lucky if I was getting a download at 6 KB/sec, and now getting nearly 500 times that speed in a real-world test…

What, am I crowing too much?

Hiring Foreign Teachers

January 4th, 2005 Comments off

Either the JET Program is being junked, or Japanese schools are taking a wrong turn in hiring teachers. A news story in Japan Today reports that vacationing foreign university students can, from February, serve as language instructors at Japanese public elementary, junior high, and high schools. Now, if we’re talking JET-style human-tape-recorder jobs, then okay, I guess. But the article leaves open the possibility that these people will be teaching classes, possibly even solo. Maybe I’m mistaken, but I think the policy up until now has been that no foreign teachers, no matter how qualified, were allowed to teach solo in any public schools. If this new policy has university students teaching classes solo, then they’re out of their mind. But I figure there’s gotta be some qualification of the circumstances in there somewhere. Anyone know about that?

What Japanese schools need is to allow fully qualified non-Japanese TOEFL teachers to get full-time jobs teaching language in those schools; that alone will seriously improve the end result of those long years of otherwise half-wasted study. In my experience as a student in American schools, I never saw a class that was taught by a non-native speaker. I’m sure there are quite a few in America, but I’ll bet that they’re the exception rather than the rule. And I think it’s a good rule to have someone who is both intimately familiar with the language in question, and with professional credentials, to teach the class.

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