The only thing I miss about Japan is the toilets.
It’s been six months since we left Tokyo for Singapore and my tush misses those cozy thrones of high-tech whizzers and whatchamacallits.
In all fairness I also miss the ramen, the vending machines, the cherry blossoms, and hell, even the four seasons. I know the day will come when I grow weary of Singapore’s daily tropical resort weather.
What I don’t miss are the day-to-day struggles of living as a foreigner in Japan.
“This country is awesome,” my wife texted me the other day. She had completed signing up for SingPass, an online app that is our government-issued “digital identity” here in Singapore. Simply show the bar code on our smart phone at the bank and all of our services are granted. Here in a true cashless society, I simply tap my debit card at the café register and my coffee is paid for in an instant.
Bear with me as I catch my breath before beginning a tangent on my endless list of grievances towards Japanese banks.
The Adventures of Opening Bank Accounts in Tokyo
It took me five years to obtain a credit card in Japan. Even though I was gainfully employed and had been banking with the same bank since moving to Japan, they deemed me a higher security risk than a university sophomore with shiny new coke habit. No credit card for me.
I even tried to sign up for Rakuten’s credit card launched specifically for foreigners living in Japan. There were too many characters in my name (21 characters can’t fit on a credit card), so no credit card for me.
Then there was the day I tried to sign up for an account with my new employer’s bank. I spent a week with my Japanese teacher role-playing the transaction. At the bank, I sat in front of the lady, back straight, smoothly going through the pre-prescribed questions.
Then she reached the question, “Are you or have you ever been affiliated with an anti-social organization.” (As in, am I a member of the yakuza?) I said, “No.”
She stared at me blankly. I fidgeted. I’m not yakuza, am I?
“Answer the question,” she said. I didn’t know how to be more clear, other than to put my hand over my heart and say, “No, I am not yakuza.” We went back and forth for what seemed to be an eternity.
She finally said, “We cannot give you a bank account. Your Japanese isn’t good enough.”
I was crestfallen.
As it turned out, I was at the wrong bank. There are two “central Shinjuku” branches of this particular bank, and I needed to be at the other one. To their credit, the correct bank had a digital pad upon which I could answer their questions in English.
The Adventures of Sending Mail from Japan Post
There are other bureaucratic entities that not only make daily life more difficult, but absolutely become paralyzed when dealing with a foreign client.
Once I went to the passport office to get my son’s new passport. I told the lady, in Japanese, that I can’t write in Japanese. As she helped me fill out the documents, she proceeded to grumble in Japanese about how difficult it is deal with foreigners.
Dealing with Japan Post is like taking a cheese grater to your frayed nerves. I enjoy watching the next available post office staff shuffle papers until one of them silently agrees to deal with the foreigner. There was the time the lady literally jumped with fright when she saw me, and my big package, next in line.
This was a smaller neighborhood post office and she frantically explained that their scale wasn’t big enough for my big package. I did my best to use my most polite Japanese for, “are fucking kidding me?” As I began to leave to trudge back out in the rain, she urgently told me to wait. She went and retrieved the balding manager who had been hiding in the back room. I thought maybe this guy had the authority to make the scale do its proper job.
No, he just bowed deeply and delivered a formal apology for not being able to handle my big package. Out into the rain I went.
Last year the U.S. post office initiated a requirement that the address slips for all parcels shipped from overseas must be printed out rather than handwritten. This created a huge kerfuffle for Japan Post. It took me three attempts to correctly navigate the online signup for Japan Post – simply to be able to print out an address slip. I had to special order plastic sheets in which I must insert my address slip.
When I arrived at the post office with my printout, plastic slip and big package, the lady once again gave a little jump when she saw me.
She took my slip back to the manager and they discussed my paperwork in anxious, hushed tones. She came back to me and informed me that since the date on my printout was different from that day’s date, that they could not deliver my package.
Once again I took my big package out into the rain, dejected.
This year when I sent Christmas presents back home from Singapore, I went online and quickly filled out the address slip, paid online, printed everything out and went to the post office (making sure it was the correct date).
There was no queue at the post office. I walked up the clerk and handed over the package and stack of paperwork. He ignored the documents and asked to see my email confirmation. He scanned the barcode. Took my package. And I was done. I now had an entire afternoon of free time.
Looking at the Bright Side of Life in Tokyo
Bank and post office aside, Japanese customer service is the cat’s pajamas. When my parents checked out from their first ryokan overnight stay, they thought it was a hoot when the entire staff lined up outside the entrance, bowing deeply as they pulled away in their taxi.
There was the time a city maintenance man came over to check the sewer line. The cement pad in front of our house was a mess of kids’ bikes, toys and brooms. The access to the sewer line was directly beneath all this. The maintenance man carefully removed everything, checked the line, then neatly replaced everything, conscientiously putting all of our crap back in its exact spot.
There was the year I did my own taxes and accidentally allocated myself an additional ¥200,000 (approximately $2,000). I had to go to the tax office (with my wife to translate) to explain myself. The clerk not only fixed my tax form, but he also gave me an additional deduction for transportation to work and for my health insurance costs. He then deeply apologized to me for all of the trouble.
Yes, you should be sorry that I am an idiot.
The term for Japan’s selfless hospitality and service has a word for it – “omotenashi” – which gained popularity when it became the catch-phrase for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic bid committee.
I’ve always questioned, what came first, the omotenashi or the egg? Everyone has had a convenience clerk chase them down the street because they forgot their 1-yen piece of change. But then we have also seen red-faced men of a certain age berate convenience store clerks for putting their hot fried chicken in the same bag as their cold container of apple slices.
Japanese customers are known for being the most difficult in the world. One of my former English students worked in quality control for a manufacturing company. She said the acceptable quality control rate in Japan was 90 percent, while the rest of the world is 75 percent. In Japan, customers will send products back if the shipping box is damaged, even though the product itself is in tip-top shape.
Once my parents shipped a baby bouncer from the States. When it arrived, the package looked like a tiger used it as a chew toy. Three men delivered the package. The delivery guy, his manager and a third witness were relieved to see it was a foreigner at the door who happily signed all of their documentation.
We have a nice collection of Disney bath towels, which are free gifts my Japanese mother-in-law receives every time she complains to her delivery company whenever a package arrives an hour or two late.
So my question is – is Japanese customer service so gracious because that is the culture, or is it because Japanese customers are a giant pain in the ass?
Then there is the way Japanese society versus Singapore society approaches kids.
Japan: Making Raising Kids Harder Than It Needs To Be
When our first son was born we lived in corporate housing provided by my wife’s company. So pretty much all of our neighbors knew we just had a baby. One day outside the apartment building I ran into one of the neighbor ladies, who kindly congratulated us on our new child.
I did my best to graciously accept, but then she said, “Taihen, neh?” Which I translated as, “So difficult, huh?” I was insulted.
In America, the proper expression when talking about newborn babies is, “So precious.” To insinuate that my child is a burden gnawed at something in my core and I responded as such.
But in Japan, when discussing your children, you are required to express how difficult they are. Babies are a burden. Schoolchildren don’t study enough. You are never to brag about your child’s accolades or adorability.
Out in public, children must be still, sterile creatures of complete silence. Japanese children sit quietly on the train. We constantly had to apologize to fellow train passengers as our boys climbed about the seats, swung from the overhead handles and pulled emergency alarms.
Tokyo’s public parks are not exempt. When the oldest joined a soccer club, I started taking the boys to a local park with a large playing field to practice. About two weeks later a new sign was posted in the park – no ball playing.
Seriously. A park, with an open field, where you are not allowed to throw a ball because you might disturb one elderly person.
When we were searching for a daycare for our kids we visited one facility with a nice big playground. They informed us that they limited playtime on the playground to 30 minutes because one neighbor complained every time they heard the sound of children’s laughter.
Needless to say, any time we took our reasonably rambunctious boys out into public in Tokyo, we walked on eggshells.
Here in Singapore, it is like the idyllic village of Spectre in the Big Fish. Everyone loves our kids here. On numerous occasions, elderly passengers and pedestrians warmly confide in us that high energy is a good sign for intelligence. For which I totally agree.
Children are our future, not the elderly. Which quite honestly, is a concept that is holding back Japan. I’ve gone on far enough to get into that now.
Okay, Wrapping It Up
Look, I love Japan. I hope to one day live there again. There is a world of culture, history and natural resources to explore that you simply won’t find in Singapore.
But when it comes to how the countries treat foreigners, there is no comparison. Simply put, Singapore’s economy relies on immigrants and caters to expats as such. Bureaucratic red tape is streamlined. Documentation and payment are digitalized. Daily life is simply easier.
This is a gross generalization, but Japan’s economy is based on exporting Japanese goods and products. Japanese companies and citizens are held in high esteem while foreigners are considered inferior.
I once interviewed one of the more successful American entrepreneurs living in Tokyo. He said if you are simply looking to launch a successful business, you will look at a place like Singapore, where corporate taxes are nil, where the official language is English, and there are multiple resources devoted to helping you.
He said people who set up shop in Japan do so because they want to specifically be in Japan, and they are willing to navigate the overly complicated barriers put in place that seem to purposefully negate success.
Everyone’s experience as an expat is going to be different. I am married to a Japanese native, which means my spouse visa makes life much easier for me in Japan. Here in Singapore we are on an expat package provided by my wife’s company, again, making everything much easier.
Still, here in Singapore we feel welcome with open arms. In Japan, I am simply a tolerated guest, with a warm tushy.