Japan is odd in many ways. Whether it's the products you find in stores (tentacles on a stick, no joke), or the cultural expectation of wearing slippers for particular types of floors (one set for indoors, and another for the bathroom). The oddest thing about Japan, in my opinion, is living here. You are transported to a reality that simultaneously places you in the past and future. Now, I am drawing a comparison between Japan and Canada (or more generally, between North America, and to some extent, Australia and the U.K. - perhaps other countries as well, but I'm drawing from personal experience). Why is Japan like simultaneously living in the past and future? Let me explain.
The Past: So if you think of bygone days, what comes to mind? What are some things that were common and are no longer but a memory? Well, let me give you some examples that are alive and well in Japan. Bicycles. Yes, I'm sure you're aware that bicycles are common in places like China, but were you aware of how common they are in Japan? They are everywhere. Absolutely everywhere. Not just bicycles, but the type of bicycles remind me of travelling back in time to the 1950s. They're the kind of bicycles with baskets in the front and a bell on the handle. I'm not kidding. If you watch a movie from that era, you'll see people happily biking along on exactly the bike I'm talking about. How about trains? Trains used to be a common method of transportation. Guess what? They're everywhere here. Trains, trains, trains! So many different lines! Some of them are older and feel like they're from the 50s, I swear. In more rural areas, the train pulls away from the station with a tug, like pulling on a slack line. You can see the movement jostle everyone in the car.
Okay, okay. So bicycles and trains are a blast from the past. What else? Laundry. Yes, everyone owns a washer, but owning a dryer isn't actually common. Most people buy laundry clips and hang their laundry to dry on a line. It's true. In fact, I just finished hanging my clothes to dry. It's an odd thing having to take your clothes from the washer, and clip them to a string hanging outside your apartment. What year is this?
Remember fax machines? Well they're plentiful here. I use one every single day at work. I can hardly believe it myself. I find it so incredibly old fashioned. What about e-mails? What about computers? What about doing things that save paper? I'm not sure I understand myself. I guess Japan just prefers having hard copies of absolutely everything. So I spend my time filling out forms and dialing numbers. You think they're old, clunky machines? Nope. They're new. Yes, new, small, efficient, fax machines. Oh Japan.
Then we come to the topic of gas stations and convenience stores. You're probably thinking, "Wait, aren't those the same things?" Nope. They most certainly aren't, not in Japan anyway. I know travelling in North America is filled with gas stations and convenience stores being one and the same. Not in Japan. Take a trip back in time when those things were clearly separated. Your local "general" store carried everything you could possibly need in a pinch, and the service was always friendly. If you wanted gas for your automobile, you had to go to a different place, where it was always full service and they offered mechanical work if you needed. Welcome to Japan. In that sense, things are very much like looking back in time. Station attendants happily take care of your every vehicle need, and definitely offer any automotive service required. In fact, because it's Japan, customer service is always taken to another level. At some gas stations, expect the attendant to stop traffic and clear the way for you to leave safely, and in style. Now that's service.
If it isn't classic bicycles, gas stations, fax machines and hanging your laundry to dry, what else is a blast from the past? Simply put, gender roles. Japan is the place where women are exquisitely feminine and all the men wear suits. In fact, they're called "salary men". They work ridiculous hours and are never home with their families. Women graduate college, work as a receptionist for a few years then marry. It's true. They marry young and they have children. Then the men continue to work themselves to the grave, while the women take care of the offspring they've birthed. What's that? Is that the phone? Who's calling? Oh yeah, it's the '50s and they want their stereotypes back.
The Future: Honestly, I'm just going to talk about technology advances. For instance, the machines located in a train station. They can take bills, coins and most of them offer services in English. Then there's the gates. It's this elongated machine which you can either scan your pass through (you can buy a card that will scan electronically through your wallet, no kidding), or you can insert your train ticket into a slot and it will shoot through the other side of the gate. It's pretty amazing. It gets me every time. The city I'm from goes by the honour system. Kind of a huge mistake. In contrast, there's New York City, where you will actually get deported if you don't swipe your metro pass.
How about ATMs? Feel free to dump your change into these machines. That's right, ATMs process change. When you want to withdraw cash, a slot opens and the cash is presented to you in an expeditious and polite manner. (Not to mention the fact that everyone deals in cash. That's right, cash. Another blast from the past.) Or what about the presence of a copy machine/printer in every convenience store? They take USB keys, SD cards...whatever you can slap you files onto and print off. It doesn't matter, these machines will do it.
Japan is also very concerned about the environment. That idea is reflected in some city bus drivers that will actually turn off the bus instead of idling (even while at a red light). Although, I must say that I don't feel like it's helping much (if at all), but the thought is there. One hotel I visited, gave me a key card, which seemed perfectly normal until I got to my room. I attempted to turn on the lights but nothing happened. Then I saw a slot on the wall that asked me to insert my card. As soon as I did, all the lights came on. It blew my mind. They actually thought of a way to conserve energy even if you've left things on, because without the card, nothing would work. So if you go out shopping, and forget to turn the radio off, the tv, the bathroom light - whatever, removing the card would immediately shut it all off. Pretty cool.
I nearly forgot to mention trains again! Yes, there are old fashioned kind of trains, but there is also the shinkansen, also known as the bullet train! Oh my god. Prepare yourself for the most luxurious and comfortable train ride of your life. You have a lot more room than a plane, and yet it feels like you're flying. The train exceeds speeds of 300 km/h and feels like a soft glide just above the ground. If you're standing on the platform and watch the train go by, it rushes by with such speed and sound, that it's sure to surprise you! I grab my heart every time and feel the whirlwind wrap itself around me, like a plane passing you on the street. It's intense!
All in all, Japan really is like living simultaneously in the past and future. All of the technology (save fax machines) are a reminder that they are always ten steps ahead of everyone else. They have the ability to invent and implement everything right here, in their own country. Simple things like talking vending machines that can produce hot and cold beverages (depending on the weather), ice cream, beer and even cigarettes. Some ramen shops have a machine where you purchase your meal ticket before handing it over to the chef. Yes, technology wise they are "streets ahead". However, some things culturally remain rooted in old beliefs and traditions. Whether you're visiting a temple or shrine and witness apprentices wearing traditional clothing, catch a whiff of cigarette smoke from the numerous smokers (some places in Japan allow you to smoke EVERYWHERE), or observe the gender dynamics of a couple - the female wearing ultra feminine, frilly clothing and following behind her well dressed, male partner. Things in Japan are quite different from the rest of the world. Nowhere have I ever seen such a strange dichotomy of the past and future. I suspect that I will never experience this type of surreal reality anywhere else.
Several months ago a few of my male friends noted something strange on my clothes. They pointed to my shirt and asked, "Who is that?" I could only reply with, "What do you mean?" They asked again, this time specifically asking who the woman was on my shirt. I was baffled and gave a shrug. I don't know, how am I supposed to know? It's just a woman.
I gave it some thought and realized why it confused my male friends. Men don't have shirts with unknown males. If a man is to wear a shirt with another man's face - it's someone who is clearly recognizable as some sort of idol. Perhaps it's Randy Couture, John Cena or Iron Man. The point is - they know the man.
In my case, and perhaps in many women's cases, our clothing and accessories are riddled with mystery women. Sometimes a simple silhouette or an elaborate design. Where do these women come from? Are they purely idealized images of pseudo women rendered by artists? Or are they modelled after real women, maybe even inspired by? More importantly, why does women's fashion include unknown females? Aren't there enough inspirational women to brand on clothing and the like? Why don't we have images of famous and powerful women?
I know I wouldn't mind seeing shirts with Amelia Earhart, Malala Yousafzai or maybe even Charlize Theron. I would much prefer recognizable role models plastered on my clothing than strange, made-up females. They have no name, no age, no biography - they're simply used as decorative images. This bothers me to think that something that appears so mundane, is in fact steeped in society's accepted norms of women as beautiful objects.
Then again, perhaps I'm an oddity and I'm attracted to clothing with mysterious women. Maybe I'm biased. Either way, it's something that's caused me to think about the bigger picture.
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