House Ownership: The Uncertainty of it All

House ownership in Japan doesn’t give you that feeling of security I imagine it gives, for example, Northern Europeans. The proverbial “Sword of Damocles” looms over us in so many ways. Ever since buying a house, I have come to truly understand just how uncertain it all is.

First there are the weeds; the ever creeping, green jungle that must be violently chopped back almost weekly during the hot and moist summer season, in a futile effort at stopping it swallowing up everything from houses and roads, to parks and fruit trees.

The aggressive kudzu weed in the process of swallowing up another building.

Then there is the mould and rust that will eat away at all your treasures, as soon as you take your eyes off them. No matter if they are kept inside your built shelter, tools and clothes not regularly oiled or aired will just begin to corrode or grow green hair.

And for a few weeks a year, usually just after rainy season finishes, there are extremely heavy and relentless rainfalls lasting several weeks, often causing whole hillsides to slide, the massive but shallow rooted cedars to topple, and rivers to break free from their confines. Usually these come together with tropical cyclone storms and 200 km/h wind gusts that threaten to carry away any poorly attached roofs.

To top it all off, Japan alone accounts for about 10% of all active volcanoes in the world and sits on a junction of 4 tectonic plates, making it also one of the countries most frequently affected by earthquakes in the world1.

A two story house in a neighbouring village that collapsed during the recent earthquake.

Yes, even the ground itself cannot be relied upon here. Trembling with repressed anger, shivering with held back excitement and occasionally exploding in fits of unrestrained fury, the earth itself can rise up to flatten all that has been built upon it.

Of course this is reflected deeply in the culture. Housing is expected to last no more than 30 years and it’s design clearly demonstrates that there is no time to rest.

Open air vents underneath and huge eaves that swallow up any heat you produce during the chilly winters, it is often colder in the house than outside, while in the scorching summers the many tiny rooms and long corridors often feel hotter.

A house in my neighbourhood that seems to say “No relaxing allowed!”

“You must get out”, the houses seem to be saying. Your futon bed is rolled away daily, it must be or the moisture trapped will make it mould and harden. There is always work to do. Nothing you have gained will keep here.

Even modern jobs, just like traditional farming work, require long hours. 10 and 12 hour days are nothing special, weekends are rarely free and holidays usually no more than a few days in the year.

There is even shame in telling people of taking time off and relaxing, enjoying yourself. No bragging about your great weekend. Better to say how hard you worked. Better to go and volunteer for another job in your spare time.

A local tradition here is for men wearing scary masks to come into family homes to frighten the children not to be lazy2. Don’t relax! Don’t take anything for granted.

Earthen wall renovated room in my house (more on that in the next article)

And as I watched the recent earthquake lift up my house that I had just spent 3 years renovating, as if it was surfing a wave, I suddenly realised how deep this sense of impermanence must be to the Japanese. Suddenly, the love of Sakura made a lot more sense to me..




What is a Gaijin and why forever?

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, e.g. personal computer → pasocon, pocket monsters → pokemon, unless it is deeply revered and given the polite respect of a full title, 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 towards foreigners; namely that of an insurmountable difference.

For many, the outsider is more than just from outside of the country, but rather outside of humanity itself, which they consider to be only Japanese.

As in America, the outsider is referred to as an alien by the immigration services, but in this homogenic society, unlike in America, the outsider is actually seen as so otherworldly that many consider them impossible to integrate, regardless of how well they learn the language and adapt to the culture.

The Japanese national identity values the group above the individual and often considers individualism to be in bad taste. It’s not about you, it’s about how well you fit into the group and contribute to its harmony. And as they say, the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.

In this country, the great homogenising force of schooling considers even a naturally dark brown shade of black hair too rebellious to permit, and requires some children to dye their hair black in order not to stand out.

These demands of physical uniformity are of course unattainable to other ethnicities and, on some level, they are therefore eternally excluded.

Yet this position outside of the group is actually quite a comfortable one. The fear that seems to drive a lot of the conformity is unfounded, there are no predators hunting down those that stray from the pack.

And the view from outside, free from the social pressures and expectations, bears a lot of insights invisible to those within.

The “gaijin forever” could be highly valuable to Japanese society by suggesting improvements and demonstrating viable alternatives for those, and there are many, that feel trapped and stifled within.

This what is all about. Constructive criticism is an expression of love and far more valuable than sanctimonious praise. The intention is to improve life for the wonderful people of Japan, especially those for whom the current setup is just not working out..