Sunday, September 7, 2008

10 years in Japan

I went back to my parent’s home this summer and found there in a bookcase an old and dusty Tokyo guidebook dating back 1995. I bought it for my first trip to Japan as a student during 1998 summer, exactly 10 years ago. Since then, except for one single year, I have been always coming back in the country. I had been working there for three years, and I now have personal reasons to go back often. A decade is a significant time interval, around the fifth of a healthy human adult life. The world and Japan certainly changed in this decade, but probably less than many people think. On a personal level, I believe I grew up a lot during that time in my opinion and my understanding of Japan.
1998 was the year of the perfect football game for all French fans, and probably the only time since the end of WWII that you could see all people in Paris smiling. The Lewinsky affair was all the rage, happier times where all that the American president was blamed for was an inappropriate conduct with an intern. A financial crisis was spreading from Russia and South Asia to the wider world. The reasons changed, but financial issues still made the headlines this year. In this decade, the rise of big emerging countries continued, with China forecasted to be the 3rd economic power this year up from the seventh ranking a decade ago.
A significant change to daily life became clear to me while searching for pictures to illustrate this story. On my first trip to Japan 10 years ago, I briefly played with a prototype digital camera with a resolution barely sufficient for small format printing. Today, digital photography is all the rage, and it is even hard to buy a film camera. Some people think that colors were more beautiful on film, and they may even be right. Our readers may form their own opinion by comparing pictures of this story, shot with a film camera, with the pictures on other storied, all shot whit digital camera. Anyways, film pictures were not so convenient, as they were expensive to process, inconvenient to store, and could only be shared by sending a physical copy. Digital pictures can be immediately viewed and shared at no cost through a computer. The switch to digital photography was fast, and companies had to adapt quickly. One French picture processing shop chain has transformed itself into a mobile phone retailer chain, with a small counter at the back of the shop, or even sometimes underground, for extravagant people still wishing to process film or print pictures.
Innovation ideologues may not like it, but digital photography is a rare example of a technological revolution happening in less than a decade. A sector of direct interest to travelers, aviation, continued its slow evolution, with prices mostly stable during the period. The cheapest direct flight to Japan from Paris now costs between 900 and 1000 Euros, slightly more than ten years ago. I remembered buying a ticket around 5500 French francs, now 833 Euros, on ANA in 1998. Flights are slightly more pleasant now, with modern A330/340 and B777 rolled into service, and on-line entertainment much more developed with games and video-on-demand. Old B747 sometimes only had basic earphones and a shared TV hanging from the cabin ceiling with a single program. However, the most important feature of air travel, flight time, did not change at all, and will probably not for the foreseeable future.
Many Internet services were already existing at the time of my first trip to Japan: e-mail, forums (then called newsgroup), and the web, which was much more confidential. It was the realm of universities and geeks; most sites had a very bad taste design with useless animations, awful background textures and poorly chosen fonts. The web is now a much more popular place, layout and design has been vastly improved, maybe thanks to the many women now using it. The biggest change on the internet is probably Google, the famous search engine (and host to this site), who was just starting then. By providing an efficient search on the web, Google allowed anyone to access the information put on the internet by millions of anonymous contributors, which is very powerful. I found out thanks to Google about a dedicated « Ni-Channel » thread badmouthing about the project I was working on. This ease of search encouraged the development of forums and personal sites that publish freely available information of mostly high quality. This is a precious help for the traveler: 10 years ago, you only had your guidebooks and tips from friends to prepare your journey: you would have been very lucky to find information on a specific destination if it was not a major sight. Today, almost any specific question can be answered on an internet forum, and on any topic, you will probably find, in addition to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, a few personal sites or blogs.
Internet also gives expats timely access to local news: when I was living in Japan three years ago, I could watch the training sessions of my favorite football team; and I was escaping my headaches as a manager in Japan by watching Juninho, Fred and Tiago (major players of my hometown team Lyon) scoring in the UEFA Champions League. During my first trip, it was probably possible to find about football results on the Internet, but it was much more difficult. I remember getting French news by practicing "Tachiyomi" (立ち読み), the Japanese custom of reading while standing in bookstores, on French newspapers. Modern Internet also means free international phone. A few hours of conversation with the folks back home can go a long way in keeping sanity while living abroad for a long time. Do people even remember a call to Japan used to cost around 70 Euro cents a minute?
In the late nineties, Japanese electronic stores were still selling the PC9800, a Japanese computer system developed by NEC and similar to the IBM/Microsoft PC platform, but with distinct hardware and software, and, to be honest, some improvements on the standard IBM spec. This was probably one of the last remnants of an ambitious era where Japan thought it could build everything by itself. This euphoria stopped with the bursting of the financial and real-estate bubble in 1989. In 1998, the country was still in its “lost decade”, with a sluggish economy. After claiming that Japan was on the verge of conquering the world in the eighties, our brilliant thinkers now saw Japan as a sick economy in terminal phase, with homeless tents in Japanese cities a preview of the 21st century favelas. 10 years later, the country has become a quite standard developed country with a purchasing power comparable to major European countries, while still keeping its very distinct way of doing business. On one side of the economic range, Toyota is probably the best car manufacturer in the world, and Japan manufacturing is still performing very well: Casio, Nikon, Yamaha and Sony, to name only a few companies selling consumer goods, are still setting the standards in their respective industries. On the other side, some financial transactions are only performed by foreign banks in Tokyo with no local player able to compete. Overall, the trend of the last years was an improvement in the economic conditions: it is easier for young graduates to find a job, and homeless people tents are a rarer sight on cities.
Japanese cities were significantly improved during those ten years. Tokyo prefecture (東京都, 12 millions d’habitants) has built more than 80 kilometers of entirely new, and mainly underground railway lines. As a comparison, greater Paris (10 million inhabitants) has seen only 30 kilometers of new lines, and this is a generous estimation, as more than half is actually tramway some of it built on existing rail lines. Tokyo skyline also changed a lot, with several new towers including offices, hotels, and shops. The last ten years saw the major projects of Roppongi Hills (Roppongi), Tokyo Mid-town (Akasaka) and Maru-Biru (Marunouchi), in addition to the Shiodome area near Shinbashi, where 13 new towers were built. In the same time, Paris office district “La Défense” only saw 10 new and far smaller towers (around 68.000 sq.m for “Tour Granite” in La Defense whereas the Roppongi Hills have 380.000 sq.m of office space). Tokyo is, much more than Paris, a still evolving city, with infrastructure being significantly improved, larger flats and less crowded public transport: I was surprised to learn that the average house size in Tokyo was larger than the one in Paris. Of course, Tokyo’s large urban projects have a cost, and certainly contribute to Japan debt. Another dark side is that Real-Estate is also no long time investment in Tokyo, as a flat bought by a young couple is almost worth nothing when they retire: a tragedy for middle-class Japanese people who cannot build-up savings.
When I first came to Japan, I was completely fascinated by an idealized image of the country tradition, full of bushido (武士道, Japanese chivalry code), wooden temples and Zen gardens. I was so enthusiastic I even read the whole of “Genji Monogatari”, the first Japanese novel, a quite lengthy story. I was spending most of my idle time watching Japanese historical dramas on TV, although I did not understand anything, just because I liked the atmosphere. I considered Japanese-western cuisine from Tonkatsus (豚カツ) to Omurice (オムライス) as a treason. It is only later that I authorized in my mind Japan to be also a modern country. If most French people going to Japan start with “mangas”, those very diverse Japanese comics, but the end-result is about the same: while in Europe, we know only about a bit of Japanese life, and tend to idealize it: during the first trip, we try to make the reality match with our dreams. It takes a while to realize that Japan is a complete society, with university teachers and their worn jackets, skin-tanned surfers, and ordinary retired people.
My opinion on Japan went through ups and downs. I was first completely fascinated by the country, and I would find a hidden truth and outstanding aesthetics even in a toothpaste commercial. I was sure I found the Promised Land, and I was going to settle there to live in a brave new world of politeness, tolerance and harmony. This probably lasted one year and the time of two trips. My integration dreams were broken when I realized the country does not offer that many opportunities for ambitious young westerners, especially the ones not speaking fluent Japanese. I do not blame Japanese people for that, as integration of « gaijins » (外人) in Japanese companies is often difficult, and to be fair, most westerners are not ready to adapt enough to Japan. So in the following years, my opinion on Japan sank, this contempt being largely fed by Anglo Saxon media uncompromising, and sometimes unfair, coverage of the country. By the virtue of speaking English and having escaped the Japanese education system, I thought I could solve all the issues the country was facing, from digestive troubles caused by the lack of vegetables in Japan food to banks saddled with bad debt. This sounds like very naïve, but a surprising number of expats in Japan have this attitude. I think my relation became more balanced when I took a though decision two years ago: my career in Japan was in a dead-end, and my frustration ran very high, so I decided to leave the country to come back only later on favorable terms. I also stopped thinking I could blend completely into Japanese society. Even when I come back to Japan now, I do not try to mimic the typical Japanese behavior, but I keep some of my European identity. This helped me a lot to stand back. I also escaped some common paranoia of foreign residents who see racism at the slightest weird glance in the train.
On a more pleasant topic, my opinion on Japanese ladies also changed a lot during the decade: I found most Japanese ladies absolutely fascinating, and beautiful in my first trip. This was probably due to my general enthusiasm for the country, but also of the time and effort Japanese ladies put on their clothes and make-up. With time, I got used to this, and my opinion is now that Paris and Tokyo are quite comparable, and more elegant than most cities, with perhaps a slight advantage to Paris girls for their style. I apologize to my women readers that I am not able to judge Japanese males: the only information I have comes from a female European friend who was very critical of Japanese males when she came to Japan, but then threw her life in a mess for a hopeless relationship with a Japanese man. I do not know what to make out of this story.
My adventures in the far East certainly changed my behavior. I am now able to take part in most Japanese conversations, but speaking Japanese does not mean being able to read it. I was quite busy during my stays in Japan, and I could not spend enough time studying kanjis, Chinese characters used to write most words: reading a newspaper is still painfully difficult for me. Being half illiterate did not prevent me from enjoying the very fine food and traditional arts that Japan probably preserved better than most countries: my stay there certainly contributed to refine my taste for the beautiful and the delicious. A long-term stay in Japan also made me much more demanding on quality of service: I now show more often that I am disappointed when I think I am poorly treated. Tokyo is at the center of a 30 millions inhabitant metropolis. If I appreciate the atmosphere of European cities, I find most of them, even Paris, quite sleepy in comparison: you would need to choose carefully where you go out in Paris if you wish to find people in the streets on a Sunday evening. Many services are subsidized in France, and taken for granted. In Japan most of them are billed at the true cost: education, health, public transport, leisure or sports. Paying also means appreciating things for their true value, and my trip in Japan helped me appreciate all the small pleasures of everyday life in a developed country.
A stay in a big Asian country with no ancient historical link to Europe is an excellent way to avoid racism and ethnocentrism: one can have a colored skin, no knowledge of Christian religion or ancient Roman and Greek culture, and still be refined and modern: this is a self-evident truth for anyone who knows World history, but it is certainly better to feel it through everyday life than in a book. I was also surprised how many people have a different opinion. If there are great countries of each I had been working several months in a very tense atmosphere between westerners and Japanese, this was a great lesson on the way to manage different national cultures, and I was able to apply my Japanese experience to other tense situations, with some success so far.
If I assess those 10 years with Japan inside of my life, I had a very positive and fulfilling experience, even if it was sometimes a rough ride. I tried to write a realistic account which may be useful for those who also want to start their own “Japanese journey”.

List of the 80km of new railways entering service between 1998 and 2008 in Tokyo Prefecture:
  • South section of the subway Nanboku line (from yotsuya to Meguro, 8km)

  • Sourthern extension of the Subway Mita line from Mita to Meguro (4 km)

  • Fukutoshin subway line from Ikebukuro to Shibuya (9.9 km)

  • Nippori-Toneri liner (9.9 km of elevated tracks)

  • Ooedo line (from Nerima to Tocho-mae), 40.9 km
  • Tsukuba Express railway line (15 km inside Tokyo prefecture)

List of 30 kilomètres of new tracks entering between 1998 and 2008 in Greater Paris :
  • Subway line 14 (7.5 km) from Madeleine to Bibliothèque

  • Extension of Subway line 13 (Gabriel Péri to Courtilles, 2 km)

  • Suburban train RER E (new tracks from Hausmann Saint-Lazare to Gare de l’Est, around 5 km

  • Suburban train RER E (new tracks from Hausmann Saint-Lazare to Gare de l’Est, around 5 km

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