The Reluctant Gaijin in Japan: Letters and Drinking

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The Kyoto skyline, a vision of advertising billboards.

So here I am. Owing to a set of circumstances largely beyond my control, I find myself living and working in Japan. I could tell you the circumstances, give reasons or excuses, but telling you isn't going to help. Let's face it, life – and other four letter words – happen.

Part One: Letters and Drinking

For those of you that have never set foot here, you are probably imagining one of two stereotypes. One is the 'traditional Japan', of shining temples, manicured and stylised gardens, curious gods and kimonos. The other is the technologically advanced Japan, seemingly light years ahead of the world, mingled with often dystopian / perverse 'Manga' animation.

So what is it really like? Well, I'll let you know as soon as I've worked out what the hell is going on. Back in the United Kingdom I considered myself to be quite intelligent, often described as such by others; more years at university than strictly necessary... Here I am completely illiterate. Japanese has three alphabets – hiragana, which has 46 characters plus a few additional markings for variation; katakana, which is basically used for foreign words and, thirdly, the impenetrable kanji  – a writing system imported from China, even though the spoken languages appear to bear little or no resemblance to each other. Kanji has nearly 2,000 basic characters and must rate as one of the worst imports of all time. I only know this much because someone made me read about it before I left.

So I experimented, carefully writing down the hiragana for 'milk' and heading to a supermarket. Behold, I now have yoghurt. Everything was in kanji only, you see, thus impossible to decipher. Just to make me feel worse, those supposedly in the same boat as me, other fresh recruits to my company, all seem to have a grasp of not only the hiragana, but also at least a bit of the kanji. Still, I haven't actually starved yet, so maybe all this is possible.

So far, I can tell you that most ideas I had of Japan are probably at least partially true. There is both traditional and modern; Japanese culture and a lot of Western imports. You can, if you wish, pick your sushi off a conveyor belt; you can also find a McDonald's without much difficulty. I shall do my best to avoid both of these extremes.

With drinking I am less fussy and have already sampled sake and a couple of different Japanese beers. Japanese drinking appears to be a little different from Western drinking. Japanese lifestyle doesn't lend itself to having large amounts of free time, so whilst in Britain people get drunk during the course of an evening, the Japanese drink as if in an international contest. This may not yet sound all that different, but more measured behaviour does not come with age here. Drinking is often in sizeable groups and people pour for each other before the glass is empty, so it's impossible to track how much you've had; in company circles – and a lot of Japanese drinking is done here – the juniors keep the glasses of the more senior staff filled, thus it is often the older ones who drink most.

On one of my first nights here I encountered a middle-aged man on his way home around 10pm. He was staggering wildly and stopped at a junction to swing at some tall grass with an invisible golf club. Around and down he went. He picked himself up and then proceeded to cross a dual carriageway. He made it just over half way and then crashed down again, breaking his glasses as he did so. Another foreigner, one less incredulous than I, stopped to pick him up and stopped the traffic long enough to get him out of the road. I enquired about this incident and found that drinking like this is normal behaviour here. In the UK, at the very least, someone would have called him a taxi before he left town.

If British people drank like this, everywhere would probably be an orgy of violence at the weekends (and sometimes is), but the Japanese don't get violent when drunk, they tend to be just a danger to themselves. This difference may explain some of the hostility toward Westerners here. One of the first words I learnt was the term gaijin, which is a fairly derogatory term for foreigners, roughly meaning 'outsider'. There are whites, Chinese, Brazilians and a few blacks here, but Japan is considerably more 'ethnically pure' than Western European countries. Nightspots here often have notices at the door forbidding foreigners entry. I don't want to be here and they don't want me... but here I am.

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