You may (or may not) have noticed that almost all of the Japan blogs were written by Rhys; this was intentional, as his eyes were new for Japan, so I felt he would be able to write more interesting blogs. However, it was an interesting perspective to revisit the same areas (and many new ones) a decade apart and view the differences.
In August, 2001, I flew to Tokyo, Japan and made my way down to Hirakatashi, a small town on the Keihan train line between Osaka and Kyoto. There, I attended Kansai Gaidai University, an international college, for a full school-year. So, although I was no in-depth expert on the whys and hows of Japan, I did look forward to having had some previous experience in a place when we made the decision to add Japan to our itinerary.
Following are some before-and-after comparisons that I found interesting or noteworthy, especially for my friends who visited when I did the first time.
– Obesity. Japan has one of the lowest obesity rates in the world, thanks to their diet and their semi-active lifestyles. Mostly diet, I think, although the average Japanese does do an awful lot of walking. To put this in perspective, I’d like to point out that for the YEAR I was here in 01-02, I saw precisely TWO overweight Japanese people – and one of them split her time between Japan and New York. This time, however, we saw considerably more overweight, people, ESPECIALLY children. A lot of pudgy kids and teens. Their rate is still noticeably lower than most of the other countries we visited (and certainly the country we’re from), but I think the trend has begun. This leads me to…
– Food Portions & Cola Availability: Now, regardless of the picture, I’m not actually blaming McDonald’s for the changes I perceived, but it was the first place I noticed a difference in portion size, which is why I chose it. Eight years ago, getting a value meal in Japan meant a small cheeseburger, a paper fry container smaller than the ones in the kids’ meals back home, and a 6-ounce cola cup full of ice. Now, however, for LESS money you get MORE food. Cheeseburger is the same, but the fries are now akin to our medium fries, and the soda is in a 12-ounce cup. Cola is offered in many more places, and at much cheaper rates than last time. All-you-can-drink soda is still a rarity, thankfully. Plus, TONS more Western fast food has popped up in eight years. Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, KFC, and of course the ubiquitous McDonald’s and Starbucks. Even at normal, local Japanese restaurants, the portions seem to be much larger than before – but I don’t have any concrete examples of that. I did notice milk and dairy products are everywhere – and cheap – now, when eight years ago it was hell to find milk (still in a glass bottle), and really expensive at that.
– Arcades – DanceDanceRevolution is gone. 😦 No such dancing games exist now in any of the many arcades we perused. Plus, arcades are now split pretty evenly between traditional arcade games and slot machines – yes, for the kids.
– Disabled Transportation – To be fair, our guesthouse was in the rehabilitation district of Osaka, so there were many more handicapped folks around. (Last time, I was struck by their absence – during my entire year, I saw two disabled people. Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention.) But overall, I noticed that Osaka was not nearly as impossible to navigate for someone in a wheelchair as it was eight years ago. There are still many streets where the only way to cross the street is a two-flight staircase over the traffic, but ramps (ostensibly for bike-riders) have been added to some of them. I saw train conductors assisting people in wheelchairs onto the subway multiple times, and each time with no fuss. The little yellow blind-dots are on virtually every street. I remember thinking what a nightmare trying to go anywhere in Osaka with any physical disability would be last time I visited – but this time, more often, I noticed the opposite.
– Children – I still saw incredibly few children considering the amount of adults around. This does not seem to have changed much, except perhaps for getting worse. There are some, sure, and they are well-looked after. But I (and sociologists around the world who are watching closely) continue to wonder what will happen as the negative birth rate shrinks further. The population is noticeably top-heavy. I’m all for a sustainable global growth rate, which I don’t feel we have right now, but… it seems a little extreme in Japan.
– Smoking – Yes, readers, I did start smoking again in Japan. Again. It’s still a smoker’s paradise, or a recently ex-smoker’s nightmare, due to the widespread availability and very few places where smoking is not allowed. But this, too, is changing, surprisingly slowly (and late). Several clubs disallow smoking, including Club Quattro in Shinsaibashi (where we saw MuteMath perform). Some restaurants do, but very, very few; most of them that are making steps are moving toward smoking sections set apart from the rest of the restaurant as opposed to actually disallowing it. Many restaurants we visited disallowed smoking during certain hours (usually lunch), interestingly. Train stations post “No Smoking” signs all over, and in a shocking reversal of normal Japanese revulsion toward law-breaking, many smokers choose “not to notice” these signs. There are even smoking cars in trains, still, and I’m not sure that will be changing, at least for the long-distance bullet trains. We’ll see. It’s the one thing that is cheaper in Japan than back home.
– Salaryman Courtesy?! – I actually saw salarymen (Japanese businessmen) giving up their seats on trains for women and older people. Constantly. Maybe this was regional, but last time, those businessmen wouldn’t give a blind old woman with a cane the time of day, and certainly not their seat. Even pretty young women wouldn’t get a seat. Also, saw considerably fewer crazy-graphic-sex manga-readers and a lot more book-readers on the train. Don’t get me wrong, the manga-readers were still there, flipping through tentacle-rape scenes openly on the train, but they were few and far between.
– Cell Phones are HUGE. – In a drastic reversal from the smaller-than-a-fruitfly cell phones featured during my last trip, the handsets offered now are Godzilla-sized. They are giant. Each of them features a camera with more megapixels than my actual camera (!), a widescreen uh…screen to watch movies and television, and probably a lot more cool features. I don’t know for sure. I do know many of the flip phones have a mirror finish on the closed-front that acts as a touchscreen, and that looked like “the future” to me.
Those items are the only ones I really noticed as different. Much (most) of Japan is exactly as I remembered it, good and bad. Women still get paid less than men for the same job. There are still women in kimonos. Elephant socks have disappeared but legwarmers are still around. Rockabillies are still strutting their stuff and dancing to 50’s music. The SOP (skirt-over-pants) trend is still going strong, joined by BTUSS (black-tights-under-short-shorts) and BBWBL (brown-boots-with-black-leggings). It’s still crazy and chaotic, yet OCD-organized at the same time. You can still set your clock by the trains. The Japanese Dental Association still continues to block fluoride as uniquely dangerous to Japanese physiology (to provide themselves more work), so Japan still has a teeth-problem. Copyrights still don’t exist, or don’t matter if they do. There are still people polishing trash cans in the city for a full-time job. Harajuku is still the place to be to see crazy costumes. Much has changed – much has not. I guess it’s the way of the world.
Next: ROMA! Sneak Peek: I LOVE THIS CITY, perhaps more than Osaka? *gasp* Stay tuned!