What is a Gaijin and why forever?

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Gai外 –Koku国 –Jin人 is the Japanese word for foreigner and can be literally translated as outside 外 –country国 –people人. As everything in Japan gets streamlined and shortened when it is not reverred and given polite respect, e.g. personal computer → pasocon, pocket monsters → pokemon, etc. the Japanese often shorten gaikokujin to simply gaijin, i.e. outside people.

Whether intentionally or not, this expression captures something true about the attitude of many Japanese people towrads foreigners, namely that of an insurmountable difference.

The outsider, in the extreme, the alien is outside of humanity itself, which some define as uniquely Japanese, and is so otherworldly, so impossible to integrate that on some level they will remain so forever, no matter how well they learn and adapt to language and culture.

The Japanese national identity values the group above the individual and the swarm mentality it creates – drilled into consciousness by the great homogenising force of schooling where even a naturally dark brown shade of hair is considered too rebellious to permit and requires children to already dye their hair black – demands a physical uniformity that is unattainable to other ethnicities and who are therefore eternally excluded.

Yet this position outside, with none of the social pressures and expectations and no actual threat of predators that seems to drive the fearful conformity, is a comfortable one and the view from outside bears a lot of insights invisible to those within. Like an external consultant, the forever gaijin like me can be highly valuable to Japanese society and may provide useful insights to help improve the conditions of those stuck within.

This what gaijinforever.com is all about, so please excuse the regular criticism, it is done with love and the intention of improving life for the wonderful people of Japan.

Refuse Refusal or the Japanese Way of Waste Management

Many Japanese people would like to believe that the words 勿体無い mottai-nai – an expression of regret over wastefulness – are part of what defines the national character.

Surely in the post-war era it was a widely-applied way of life, similar to the idea of “waste not, want not”, but times have changed a lot from the days when clothes were mended, tools were repaired and all parts of, for example, the rice plant were used in numerous ingenious ways.

The words mottai-nai are still in everyday use, including as a self-effacing expression of unworthiness of someone’s kindness or affection, but that culture of not wasting anything hardly exists now, except for maybe telling kids to finish every last rice grain in their bowl.

It has been replaced by the convenience of throwaway and buy new consumerism of the 100 yen shops and combinis and an excessive cleanliness and superficiality that leads to triple and quadruple packaged and wrapped food products.

The Japanese way of life today certainly produces a lot of trash and while Japanese fans abroad made headlines for cleaning up after themselves inside stadiums, their lifestyle back home is probably better summarised as “not my problem” than the famous mottai-nai it maybe once was.

Living near the beach, this “not my problem” approach can be witnessed daily during the summer swimming season. The trash of a long day at the beach, from lunch-boxes to cheaply made tents, sun umbrellas and even swimming trunks, is often simply left behind or rather unceremoniously thrown out the car window around the next corner.

Many foreign visitors to the area note with surprise that there is a lot of rubbish along the roads, seafronts and in the forests, if you ever venture away from the areas specifically prepared for tourists to see. And that is not even mentioning the state of many people’s houses, abandoned or not, and sheds, garages, yards and fields.

Surprising as that may seem, it all starts to make some sense when you realise that in most places, as at our official swimming beach of Noto Town, where there are free toilets, showers and even lifeguards on duty, there is not a single rubbish bin or trash can provided for the many visitors. None whatsoever, along the whole beach.

And no bin-men or cleaning crew come to pick up any rubbish either. It is down to local volunteers to go and clean up, but if you do, you also have to pay to dispose of the trash you collected as part of your personal waste.

Only once a year, on the volunteer cleanup day just before the start of the summer seasons, when we make everything look nice and pleasant for the soon to be arriving tourists, the town generously collects the rubbish for free. Every other time, you picked it up, well now it’s your problem.

Officially, the idea is actually that visitors should keep all the trash they amass over a typical camping weekend and then take it back to their homes and dispose of it carefully and correctly there.

Well, that sounds so simple on paper, but there are two key reasons why many choose not to do this.

One is that they may well have collected a lot of trash. Far from mottai-nai, everything in this country is so incredibly wastefully wrapped and packaged that a family spending a week camping and coming in a typically tiny kei-car (instead of a truck) may not actually be able to physically fit all the waste they amassed. Even one single family meal could easily produce a shopping bag full of leftover trash.

Number two is that once you, theoretically at least, have brought it all home, you certainly can’t just bring it to your local trash collection point and be done with it.. oh no, silly, silly you for thinking it could be that easy.

No, no, you must separate, but in an incredible confusing and unintuitive manner (that also differs for each town and prefecture). Here in Noto Town, for example, the “burnables” require a pink bag you must buy at local hardware shops, which can be put out on Mondays and Fridays.

The category “burnables” (left page) includes food waste and most plastics (and wood) bowls, trays, wrappers, etc. even diapers, but not plastic wellies or sandals, no, no, also no tape, no clothes, no rope and no slippers or belts (right page, top), these are not burnable, haha, how could you think that. They require a pink bag too, but must be put out on entirely separate days.

Now the category of “non-burnables” (right page, bottom) ranges from umbrellas, brooms and toasters to kitchen knives, frying pans and cameras, oh and radios. Those are ok to put out in green bags that also must be bought at hardware store and will be picked up once a month, but not stereo equipment, noo, this, together with bikes and furniture, must be driven by you to a special place called a “clean centre”.

Having helped an elderly neighbour once with bringing his old kitchen cupboards to a clean centre, I was amazed to find that things are not quite that simple once you get there either.

Firstly there is a hefty fee for the waste you leave behind, around €60 for the 4 cupboards we brought, but also, as the 4 young staff standing around at the clean centre helpfully informed us, they do not accept various bits of waste there either.

Such as the glass part of the kitchen cupboard doors, no, no. They can’t have those at their oh-so-clean centres. No, we were forced to break the glass out ourselves and take it back home with us. “Not my problem”, the clean centre said…

Well what do you do with the glass, you may ask? Well that can be thrown away in a green bag once a month, together with such random items as magnets, spray cans, make-up, normal lightbulbs and bottle caps, provided it is broken glass, otherwise you are to take it to a glass recycling place where you again pay to leave it.

The green bags you must use are so incredibly flimsy and entirely unsuitable for even the smallest handful of broken glass that they instantly rip to shreds when you try to fill them up. Nobody seemed to have troubled themselves with the actual practicalities of returning broken glass. Again, not my problem.

Just look at this helpfully illustrated guide. Bottles, separated by white, brown and other colours of course go into clear bags once every 2 weeks, while pet bottles and cans are also in clear bags but on completely separate days.

All of these must of course be cleanly rinsed or the bin-men may refuse to get their hands dirty and just leave your bags behind with a helpful yellow sticker, ticked in the appropriate section to inform you that it was not possible to take your rubbish because of one of several errors you may have committed.

Here in Noto we actually have a comparatively simple system. In some prefectures and towns you are required to separate waste into up to 30 different categories!

Now what do you do if your waste happens to not be pictured in the colourful guidebook provided? Well, then you can call the helpline and really get to see the Kafkaesque workings of the Japanese way of waste management in action.

Calling about such common local waste as broken roof tiles, which had been rejected with a yellow sticker on the broken ceramics day, caused widespread consternation and several staff members to be consulted, before it was eventually decided that they cannot be accepted by anyone, not even the local landfill.

They fall under building materials and therefore require you to hire a private construction company who would then have special access to disposing of said materials. They explained that if they allowed people to bring things like that, far too much would be brought; never mind that people actually have to pay to bring things there, and that it’s, well, kind of their job to deal with it…

So here we are, finally understanding why people have so much trash cluttering up their sheds and gardens and why exploring a little bit into the forest along a roadside will inevitable result in you finding yet another fly-tip.

The clean centres are beautifully clean and Japan has managed to reduce waste with just one simple trick.

Simply refuse to accept people’s refuse.

Genius. You see, if the clean centre and landfill doesn’t accept it, it doesn’t show up in the records and that, my friends, means waste has been reduced that year. In the true Japanese way of just not taking any responsibility, the problem is solved.

Looks great on paper. Politicians and officials get to congratulate themselves and journalists can write glowing fluff pieces about how Japan is heading towards Zero Waste and some towns are inspiringly almost “waste-free”.

In reality, Japan ranks terrible in the international comparison, with only 20% of the (accepted) waste being actually recycled. The rest ends in the incinerator or landfill, and no, generating some electricity from burning your plastics is not actual recycling, nice try Japan.

Carefully cleaned and separated, the whole burden and cost of waste management is simply placed on the citizens, who are also charged for delivering the somewhat valuable resources, such as aluminium and scrap metal, carefully separated paper, cardboard, or cleaned pet bottles and plastic trays, to their specific collection centres.

In truth, with the system so incredibly complicated, the responsible town hall department so completely unhelpful and the bin-men so happy to refuse to pick up whole bin bags for as little as a single bottle cap wrongly included, a large part of the ageing population is simply overwhelmed, leading to them throwing their waste into the forest and sea and burning it on their fields.

Or simply not dealing with it at all and instead just piling their waste into some backroom or shed, if not right in front of their houses. Who can blame them, especially when we consider that they are often physically unable to bring their heavy old appliances and furniture to the local clean centre, where it may yet be rejected anyway.

The vast majority of abandoned houses are never taken down because of the huge costs involved in doing so, which only adds to the somewhat rundown feel of the local area.

When we moved into our house, it was of course filled with years of accumulated waste. While the plastic was somewhat manageable, the broken fridges and tons of plates and mouldy futons (it used to be a guest house) where not. So we asked a friend for help who happened to be the head of our town’s waste department at the time.

His solution was to one day turn up in a big truck, load everything up and drive it to an abandoned clean centre – yep, the town just leaves those standing to slowly decay as well – for which he had the key. We then dumped everything there and drove off before anyone saw us.

Another friend, employed by one of the biggest local businesses, told us that the company he works for had started making their own landfill. As land is cheap and waste removal is expensive, they just instructed their staff to dig a big hole.

As staff and neighbours started to use this opportunity and began throwing in their own “undumpables”, a complaint was made to the police, who refused to challenge the big company on it’s practices and instead just forced the staff and neighbours to take their personal waste back home again.

Mottai-nai is impossible in modern Japanese culture. Planned obsolescence is designed into products everywhere, so your car or washing machine simple cannot last or be repaired, but in this country even houses are built to only last around 30 years, so it feels even more hopeless.

In addition to the millions of 100 yen shops pumping tons of made to break trash products into society, the insane food wrapping culture really takes it to another level. A simple rusk (i.e. dry bread) biscuit is considered fancy enough to be individually wrapped and then put inside a plastic tray that is again wrapped in a plastic sleeve.

And cashiers will routinely place every fresh fish or meat products, already on a plastic tray wrapped several times in cellophane, into yet another plastic bag (for fear of it leaking) and look at you perplexed and in total confusion when you ask them not to.

Sadly, the nature paradise that I keep hoping Noto might become feels like it is drifting further and further out of reach each day, largely due to the realities of a waste management system that seems to only be concerned with economic benefits, while considering all the dirty work “not my problem.”

Sources:

https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/world-cup/japan-fans-clean-stadium-after-world-cup-elimination-n140281
https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/01/the-inspiring-thing-that-happened-when-a-japanese-village-went-almost-waste-free/
https://www.tofugu.com/japan/garbage-in-japan/
https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20191006-what-japan-can-teach-us-about-cleanliness
https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/08/the-japanese-have-a-word-to-help-them-be-less-wasteful-mottainai/

A Tolerance for Noise

As German living in Japan, I notice many similarities between the cultures that please my German heart.

We share a love for order and structure; and bureaucracy, though not a personal favourite, it does at least make me feel a sense of familiarity. We also share a pride in our work that, for example, the English seem to often be missing, but there are some things that we really think differently about.

One that really stands out to me is noise.

Here in Japan, things make noise. All the time. And somehow, nobody seems to mind.

In the cities, the escalators and elevators constantly warn you of such unexpected dangers as their own movement or their doors opening and closing, and the trains give a constant stream of automated guidance, such as not to cross your legs while sitting (apparently others may trip over them) or not to leave anything behind, between every single stop.

Out here in the countryside, there are loud speakers in every village, towering over the houses and fields, that will not just play crackly and somewhat wonky melodies at 7am, 12pm and 6pm, but, in my area at least, there is also an air-raid siren at 5pm, every single day.

If you are one of the unlucky ones (or have gotten the faster internet/telephone connection the town offers), you will even have a speaker inside your house or apartment, one that cannot be disconnected, which will also make these noises right in your living room, every single day.

Additionally these speakers will regularly blast out announcements from the local police or fire service, such as “The air is very dry today, so please don’t make any fires!” or, in the neighbouring town, the nightly reminder at 9pm to “remember to lock your doors!”

Now there is a whole lot of things wrong here to my ears.

Firstly, I believe the old saying that locked doors only keep good people from getting in and I always loved that around here, everyone’s door is always open.

Yes, neighbours will just suddenly be standing inside your house while you are in your pajamas making some tea in the morning, but it’s usually to share some vegetables or fish they have too much off. And it really is a great feeling to come home from a long day out and find that someone, who knows, since no one bothers leaving a note, has left you a whole box of radishes, onions, tomatoes, mackerels, sardines or whatever else is currently in season.

Secondly, I believe that sirens should only be used in emergencies and not to inform wives that it is time to go home from the fields and start preparing dinner. I also don’t think that testing the earthquake alarm system on the local loudspeakers, or the fire services slow-driving back and forth with everyone of their emergency vehicles sirens blasting out at 7am on Sunday morning needs to be done every month. I still struggle to understand the purpose… Is this just reassure people to know that it is there?

In Germany you are not allowed to use your lawnmower on Sundays or between 1pm and 3pm (midday’s rest time) on weekdays, to protect our sensitive ears, particularly on the holy day of rest, while here the community strimming in the summer will usually start at 6am on a Sunday, and a lot of locals will do their own fields before that, so sleeping in on the one day off a week that most people get is basically impossible if you have sensitive ears.

One thing that has become clear to me is that the Japanese barely take any notice of the noises going on around them. They are desensitised and seem to just fade them out in their head. Good on them, for how else could they work in a local combini or hardware store, where the company’s jingle or latest ad just plays over and over on an endless repeat. All day long. Every single day.

Our best supermarket takes it one step further and actually has songs for the meat section or the croquet zone – dumb, repetitive 30 second jingles, played loudly on a terrible mini stereo system, endlessly repeating. Blending in with the midi-versions of various unlicensed classics of western pop music coming from the main P.A. system, it really is a kind of torture for the attentive listener, even for the 30 minutes or so I spend shopping there.

Having good ears is a bit of a curse here, since the quality of sound is often very very low. Awful, screechy midi noises are never far away, whether the rice cooker playing the first bar of “Love Me Tender” to announce that it will now start cooking, or the washing machine giving off a quick major scale, just because I turned it on, and then informing me that it now knows it’s ABC when I ask it begin a wash cycle. Always terrible midi sounds. In the elevators, in the sauna!!, there is always some kind of noise.

It is clear that to Japanese ears, these things are not as grating and unpleasant as to mine. Going into a pachinko hall, I am stunned by the wall of noise that confronts you when the doors open, but neighbours have told me that they like to go there to relax. Well, it certainly will take your mind of things…

If I am ever buying any appliances, I will look for the ones that make the least, and least unpleasant, noises. And during election time, when the local politician’s car convoys drive around endlessly repeating their names over and over on their mounted loudspeaker systems, not making any statements or pledges on which they base their campaigns, just repeating their names, over and over again, I make a mental note that, if I ever do get to vote for anything around here, I will never ever vote for “Okada” or whoever else’s name has been ground into my psyche.

I keep wondering if I am the only one or if there are more of us that this noise bombardment has the opposite effect on and simply no one has bothered speaking up about it. Or maybe they did, but others just faded out that “noise”.

In Defense of a Giant Squid Statue

Ah, the Noto peninsula…When I am feeling nice, I describe it as the heart of Japan, as it roughly sits in the middle of Japan’s northern and southernmost points, but on other days I think of it as Japan’s most central dead-end.

A place where the only local cash machine that accepts Visa shuts on Sundays, Bank Holidays and Saturdays after 3pm, while the abundant rice polishing machine stations are all open 24 hours a day. The priorities are different here, and I love it!

In May 2021, about 2 months after an approx. €230,000 squid statue was erected next to the road station in Tsukumo Bay, about a kilometer from my house, something very strange happened…

Newspapers across the world all published an identically worded Reuters article on Noto’s newest attraction; right down to the final conclusion of one anonymous Twitter user that, “No matter how you look at it, this is wrong.” I read at least 7 different articles that friends forwarded to me, most of them identical, word for word, and all unanimous in their criticism of the giant squid statue.

While I cannot explain how so many different news outlets would publish such identical opinion pieces on Noto’s newest attraction, I can explain why I see the matter somewhat differently.

For the last 15 years I have lived on the peninsula, about 15 minutes walking distance from the squid statue. In this time I have seen a lot of public funds wasted in what, to me at least, can only be described as either incompetence or corruption.

From building tens of kilometres of roads that no one uses – I have heard estimates of the cost of a new road in our area is around €8m per km – to a concert hall with acoustics so bad that no one wants to perform there, a lot of our public funds have been wasted.

Ushitsu has also recently built a new town hall, replacing a perfectly decent old one, in order for our local politicians to move around 50 meters further inland. It was done because of a supposed Tsunami risk that they were all concerned about after the Fukushima disaster in 2011. Never mind the hundred or so residential houses that are closer to the sea than our new town hall… a better sea defence might have been a more reasonable investment, if there is in fact a genuine risk of a tsunami in our quiet inland facing peninsula bay.

“No matter how you look at it…”, there certainly has been a lot of missed opportunities in the struggle to attract visitors to the local area.

For me, the biggest mistake of all was probably the closing of the Noto Railway, a total of 61 kilometres of train track that connected 30 stations along the peninsula coastline down to Anamizu town, from where faster trains run to Nanao, Kanazawa City and the rest of Japan.

Ignoring the fact that there are thousands of train enthusiasts around the world that would have loved traveling on the big-windowed carriages that passed countless beautiful coastal views and stopped at the Sakura covered stations in the middle of idyllic Japanese villages, it was also a waste of a hugely valuable existing infrastructure.

The rail tracks, stations, bridges and tunnels that used to give the mostly elderly population of Noto a comfortable and affordable connection to neighbouring towns, supermarkets and the rest of the country are now adding to the general feel of decay and abandonment that this area is really struggling with.

The train line was shut on April 1st, 2005, like some bad April Fool’s joke, and replaced with an overpriced bus service that is slower, far less scenic and frankly unpopular, even with the locals, let alone overseas visitors.

There has been a lot of mismanagement in the Noto area. Promoting the area as an Eco paradise, a nature reserve of traditional farming and fishing, full of delicacies from the clean forest, fields and sea would certainly have been more of a longterm attraction for tourists than continuously adding to the existing road network, as if that was the reason people didn’t choose to come here.

The one recent investment that has been a relative success is the road station in Tsukumo Bay, the Tsuku-Mall. It sells the locally fished squid in its restaurant, organises boat tours and exclusively offers products made by local businesses in its popular shop.

Using the Corona Relief Funds for local businesses to build a cool, photogenic and thankfully not cutesy squid statue right next to the already popular road station was, in my opinion, actually a really good idea.

The tourism from within Japan has picked up significantly, and all that at a cost of around 40 meters of local road, so why is it being so heavily criticised by so many different news outlets around the world?

Of course the readers enjoy articles about the weird and unusual from around the world, coupled with pictures of an impressive squid statue, it obviously makes for a better article than an analysis of Noto’s history of public spending, but why the united criticism of it?

The article never bothers to explains why it was “wrong”, it just makes a big deal out of the price, as if that number doesn’t pale into insignificance when compared to the cost of, for example, an unnecessary new town hall.

The fact that supposedly reputable newspapers all printed such a poorly researched article that hilariously cites “a twitter user” instead of a single local resident or representative is a rather worrying indicator of the state of journalism today.

Sadly it seems to be just another example of news around the world straying further and further from its duty of objectivity into opinion-based content designed to evoke specific emotional responses.

Many readers won’t even notice that they were actually given very little factual information on the topic and instead mostly told how they’re supposed to feel about it.

Ironically, the articles actually prove how good this giant squid statue is at drawing attention and making people aware of the existence of the Noto peninsula, but someone really needs to tell all of the misinformed readers that the squid statue was probably Noto’s least wasteful use of public funds in the last 15 years…

The author’s wife captured by the squid’s (ch)arms


Sources:

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/town-japan-builds-giant-squid-covid-relief-funds-n1266362
https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/05/06/national/coronavirus-squid-statue/
https://www.spiegel.de/panorama/gesellschaft/japan-stadt-noto-baut-mit-corona-hilfsgeldern-riesige-tintenfisch-skulptur-a-1f6691c2-457f-4fc3-8c9e-9cfc6edfbc88
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/may/05/japanese-town-spends-covid-funds-on-huge-squid-statue
https://www.welt.de/vermischtes/article230901607/Japan-Stadt-gibt-Corona-Hilfsgelder-fuer-Tintenfischskulptur-aus.html
https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-56978075
https://the-bangladeshnews.com/asia/news/japan-town-builds-giant-squid-statue-with-relief-money