BookOff New York

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Did you know there’s a BookOff in New York?! YES, everyone’s favourite Japanese discount bookstore has a shop in New York and it is awesome!

On my first day in New York I made sure it was the first thing I did. After walking around for ages trying to find it (it’s really tucked away!), I finally made it there. First stop – Japanese video games. Look at those DS games!!

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I really wanted to buy something but sadly none of them caught my eye and the ones I really wanted wasn’t there.

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On to DVDs! Hana Yori Dango is my favourite Japanese drama. It’s a story of a poor girl who goes to a private school and angers the school’s douchiest guy.

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Who knew 90′s teeny bopper girl group Mini Moni had a manga?!

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Finally, my purchases. This is my FAVOURITE manga of all time – Tenshi nanka jyanai (I’m not an Angel). It was in the bargain bin!!!! I got this bumper edition for just one dollar. I also got a couple of other manga that really shouldn’t have been in there with Tenshi.

Find BookOff New York at 49 W 45th St, New York.

Tips for Solo Travel

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I travel alone most of the time, mainly because I like to go to far-flung places and spend a bit of money on it, which isn’t the kind of travel a lot of people want to do. But I’m cool with that – ever since I studied in Japan I’ve been able to cope in new places alone and have picked up the skills that means I don’t feel sad or lonely when I’m traveling…not most of the time, anyway!

Here are some of my tips for people wanting or needing to travel alone.

1. No one is pitying you when you eat alone.

Here’s a hard truth. 99% of the time, no one is even noticing you. No one cares. Unless, of course, there is something obvious making you stand out. Something like being the only white person in a restaurant full of, say, Indian people. Or you wearing something very revealing in a country known for conservative dress codes.

Not once – not even once – in my history of eating alone, has anyone bothered me or said anything that made me feel like a loner for wanting to eat alone.

The only trouble with eating by oneself is that you need to entertain yourself. Always come armed with reading material or perhaps a games console or your laptop, so that you are kept occupied and even IF someone looks your way and wonders what’s up, you look like the fabulously busy reader/writer/blogger/business person/gamer.

2. Plan things that are easy to do alone.

I much prefer city trips when I’m alone because there are so many more things to do there. Like when I went to the spice plantation in India last year, it was nice and I did enjoy myself but it’s the kind of place that really is better enjoyed as a group.

You also have to think of safety. If you’re at the beach and want to take a dip, it’s much harder to find someone/some place to guard your stuff while you’re in the water.

On city trips it’s much easier to go to museums, do sightseeing etc while you’re by yourself.

3. It’s possible to meet people there.

But even though you go on your trip alone there are still ways you can find people out there. In India (which has been my most challenging solo trip to date) I found it easy to make friends when I went out diving, and in Dublin it was easy to pick up new friends from the walking tour.

If you’re in a place where there aren’t many group activities around then you could always try Be Welcome, which is similar to Couchsurfing but is more of a community and less money grabbing, so the people are much nicer. I used Couchsurfing a lot when I was in Paris and met up with some great people also visiting at the same time as me.

4. Plan some quiet time.

When you’re traveling with other people, there are times when you’re out sightseeing and then there are times when you’re just relaxing and chatting, right? When you’re by yourself it’s easy to just DO ALL THE THINGS 100% of the time. Unless this is how you like it, I recommend planning some downtime each day. Whether it’s planning to visit a cool shop you heard about, or finding a cafe to chill out in or even going to the cinema, I think it’s good to have a little “me” time, even when you’re alone.

5. Keep your mind busy.

When I was in Paris I bought something amazing – this travel journal. Inside there are loads of things to do while you’re traveling, from asking random people what they eat for breakfast, to space to draw and describe people you meet. In mine I have a drawing of an old woman who smelled of wee who sat next to me and told me about her grandchildren, a map of the Anjuna area drawn for me by a great guy I met through Couchsurfing and a drawing of an aircon machine with “onida” written on the side. Onida in Japanese would mean “it’s a demon!”

I think that keeping this on me all the time not only gives me a reason to speak to people around me and to make new friends, but also is a great way to remember those bits of my trips that I would have forgotten otherwise.

Do you enjoy traveling alone? What are your solo travel tips?

10 Twisted Myths about Japan – Debunked!

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When I tell people I’ve lived in Japan, people usually reply asking me if something about Japan is true. Usually, it is not. I’ve written before about how frustrated I get when people think Japanese culture is all about weird sexual preferences, but I thought I’d write again about 10 things that just aren’t true.

1. Japanese men are not all perverts.

Nope. I mean, some of them, sure. But no more than any other place, I bet.

“But Charlotte, what about those weird pervy manga comics? Don’t they even read them on the trains?” Yeah, but come on, in the UK we have a topless woman on the 3rd page of one of the (sadly) most popular papers. And then there are lads’s mags, which are full of semi naked women posing between articles. These things may be very different to dodgy manga, but they are still on a similar level of perviness.

2. It’s unlikely you’ll be molested on the trains.

“Wait, don’t they have to have women’s train carriages in Japan because the men can’t keep their hands to themselves?!”

If you’re a Japanese woman, the sad fact is that there is a chance of you being touched on a busy train. I once tried to ask Japanese friends about it, so I could understand how often this happens, but they weren’t very keen to talk about it. If you are a foreign woman, Japanese men would probably be way too scared to lay a finger on you.

And anyway, if you’re worried about this, you can always use the women’s carriages of trains. It differs from city to city but the Nagoya ones at least ran as female-only from 5pm – 8pm on weekdays, since that’s when the rush hour was (and having lots of people squeezed next to each other makes it easy to grab someone). If you are a man, be aware that if you are in a women’s carriage when the clock strikes 5pm, you’ll end up being pretty embarrassed.

3. You won’t be finding used underwear machines.

They are illegal. It is a myth.

4. Japanese women don’t need you to save them.

When I went to study in Japan I was at a university for women. It’s one of the most prestigious women’s universities not academically but for producing young ladies of the highest quality – fit to marry any politician or high profile, high earning business man.

One day, I said to the Japanese guy I was dating that I felt sorry for my classmates since they have no choice in life but to work in a meaningless job for a year or so, then find a guy to marry, then quit their job, have a baby and then be a housewife for ever more. He told me that they don’t need me to feel sorry for them, that they are perfectly happy with this situation.

True enough, in speaking with my classmates, they really did just want to have lovely families. Sure, there were probably some of them who probably wanted to be career women, but in the same way that in the culture I grew up in it’s common for women to aspire to have jobs, it’s common for Japanese women to aspire to have families.

Japan has one of the largest gender gaps in the developed world, but it seems there are women fighting for the gap to be closed. Whether they are close to doing that or not, I don’t know. But what they don’t really need is for the west to look down on them while they work this out, and they don’t need rescuing because that’s just patronising.

5. Japanese people cannot automatically speak Chinese, and vice versa.

English is like German. Just because you can understand English doesn’t mean you can understand German. Oder?

6. Japan isn’t all skyscrapers with busy streets.

The Japanese countryside is gorgeous. Hills and fields and trees…ahhh I swear Japan is one of the most beautiful countries in the world.

7. Manga doesn’t equal porn.

Just like how novels come in all kinds, manga (Japanese cartoons – NOT anime which is animation) also comes in all kinds. There are kids’ manga, girls’ manga, boys’ manga, women’s manga…and dirty old men manga!

Before you start judging manga, do a little research. There’s so many great titles that have been translated into different languages today and many chain bookshops stock manga these days. I love girls’ manga from the late 80′s…like Tenshi Nanka Jyanai and Itazura na Kiss.

8. Japanese people DO know English…

Japanese adults have learnt English from junior high school to high school, and Japanese young people have probably learnt it from elementary school. BUT, especially from junior high on, they learn grammar so that they can pass tests. They don’t learn how to have a conversation. So if you are lost in Tokyo there may be a brave person who wants to use their English on you but a lot of other Japanese people will be scared that you’ll ask them something and they won’t understand.

9. Japanese isn’t that hard.

“Oh, you speak Japanese, that must mean you’re clever!”

Haha, I wish. Here’s an awesome link from Tofugu explaining why Japanese isn’t that hard at all.

10. Gaming isn’t making Japanese people forget about sex.

Late last year the BBC was craping itself over having created an amazing story to tell – that Japanese guys prefer 2d girls to sex with real women. Only, that story wasn’t true. Some Japanese men (and women!) like to play dating gaming but it’s no more worrying than men who like page 3 girls in Britain. There may be men who like to spend a lot of alone time with pictures of the topless models, and in Japan there may be men who prefer to spend all their efforts on fictional girls in games. But neither country is suddenly sexless because of either of these things.

Around the time the BBC’s documentary and article came out, a Japanese speaking friend went through and tried to find the Japanese sources of all the BBC’s facts. Guess what? Most of them were greatly misquoted and some seemed to be made up. So even with the BBC, don’t believe all you’re told!

 

So there we have it! Do you know any myths about Japan that need to be debunked? Let me know in the comments!

Yoshi Didn’t…

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So a little while ago, the totally awesome Yoshi Obayashi of the podcast Yoshi Didn’t contacted me and asked if I’d let him interview me. Of course I said yes!

It’s a very long podcast (almost 3 hours!!) but if you’d like to listen here is the link. We talk about Japan a lot, so if you’re interested in Japan then I’m sure you’d find it interesting!

Also, my voice doesn’t suck as much as I thought it did. WIN.

Gratitude in Japan

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For some reason, I happened to be reading through an old blog of mine that I used to write when I was in Japan. I started to read a few posts from there and couldn’t even remember writing them, but they were like portals back to my Japanese life.

I’ve found one post that I particularly liked. After almost 2.5 years out of Japan, this is a particularly nice post to look back upon and think about the cultural differences I encountered.

Here is my post, from 10th March 2011 (the day before the tsunami):

In the past week, I’ve had two events that have made me understand Japanese culture just that little bit more than I did before. The first was graduation. Of course, I had graduation last year too, but as it was my first, I was in awe of everything and so wasn’t able to catch a few things. The second, was the wedding of two Japanese friends.

As with any formal event in the Japanese school calendar, such as sports day or the culture festival, the students spent a long long time practicing for the graduation ceremony. Looking back to last year, I wonder why on earth they would want to spend so much time on what is, actually, standing then sitting then standing and singing, then sitting, then standing, then walking, getting some papers, taking them with two hands then tucking them under your left arm, then walking, standing, sitting, standing and listening to enough speeches to make your ears bleed. Some time in the week before graduation, I was stood in a classroom of graduating students, with about 10 minutes before class started. I like to try to speak to the kids in this time; just by being there with nothing to do gives the kids some free time when they can- and often do- talk to me about whatever they like. I saw that the class before was science, and so asked a girl what she had studied in it. “Oh, we didn’t do much science”, she said. “We were writing letters.” Letters? In a science lesson? I asked if it was some kind of project to save rain-forests or – heaven forbid- stop whaling. But she told me that they had been writing letters of thanks to their parents, for helping them and pushing them throughout their junior high school life.

What an interesting custom. In a country where parents (read: mothers) spend hours every day planning their child’s schedule with evening classes to get them ahead, make sure they do homework, buy them piles of books to help them.. it would be common place to take a step back and thank the parents. Unfortunately I don’t think I ever thanked my mum and dad.. well, of course things are different in England. Education is much more left to teachers. There is no cram school, though I did take (at the expense of my parents) extra French class to make sure I actually passed the A Level. But they did work hard to make sure I did my homework, and mum used to read over my essays (she is very good with words, is my mum). In days before wikipedia, dad was always getting me to use his wonderful collection of encyclopedias to help. But I never said thank you. I think even after graduating university, when the key speaker (Brain May wooo!) had told us that we needed to thank our parents for their funding and support, did I not thank them. So I thought it was wonderful that my kids were made to sit down and think about how they had come be where they are today.

And then the weekend before the graduation ceremony, at my friends’ wedding, I saw another custom of expressing gratitude.. but I have mixed feelings about this one. I’m sure I’ll do a separate post about it, but basically it was the wedding of my friend Mi-chan, a guy who I met a year ago. It was a mock Western wedding (I’ll explain why it’s “mock” in the wedding post…) but there were still a lot of things that were very Japanese. One of those things was, during the lunch (the days events were: wedding ceremony, lunch with speeches, after party that was pretty much exactly like the lunch but with more people and no posh food) the bride stood up next to the groom, who was holding a microphone and some tissues near her face, and read out a letter to her dad. As far as I can see, the sole purpose of this was to make everyone in the room cry. The parents (all 4 of them) had to stand in a line at the back and cry, but not before the bride herself started crying. So most of the speech was her sobbing things like “I’m sorry …. mrrrhhhhh…. for always …. mhhhrrrrrr… being … mrrrrhhhhhh… so … selfish .. mrrrhhhhhhhhhhhh!” into the microphone while the groom mopped her damp face.

Now, I don’t disagree that the father should be thanked and congratulated for bringing up a girl who is able to snag a good husband. A lot of his hard earned yen probably went to paying for the wedding too. But.. in front of everyone, and using something that should be a private little act of gratitude to manipulate the emotions of all the guests… I guess I don’t see the point of it. What’s more, it’s always the father. I’m pretty sure the mother worked just as hard, if not harder since it her job to bring up the children in Japanese society.

I think it’s really great that gratitude is a big part of Japanese culture. I wish we took the time out to say thank you to people too. Though we have the culture of sending thank you cards, people of my generation usually only use them to say thank you for a gift (even now I only get round to them when I have my mum breathing down my neck and nagging me endlessly about them.) Perhaps I should take notice and make the effort more often.

Awesome Things to do in Japan – TV!

Last week something in me clicked and I suddenly missed Japanese media, mainly Japanese music and tv. When I lived in Japan, I used to complain all the time about how terrible the tv is – it’s very low brow on the whole and doesn’t have so much variety in types of show. But there were a number of shows I really enjoyed, and I’d like to share with you some of the ones that are easy to understand even if you don’t understand Japanese.

Pitagora Switch

This is a kids’ show that even adults love. Scientists and other very clever people make circuits for little marbles to go around, usually ending in “Pitagora Switch” appearing at the end. With a very cute jingle, it’s pretty addictive -

If you think this is awesome and want to watch more, copy and paste “ピタゴラスイッチ” into YouTube.

Fountain of Trivia

My teacher used to make us watch this at uni – it’s a Japanese show very similar to the British show QI, in that the aim of the show is to teach really obscure but interesting bits of trivia. Whereas QI is set up like a game show, Fountain of Trivia isn’t testing the guests’ knowledge but asking them to rate how interesting it is. A statement is made – “the real name for Bangkok is really long” or “cats don’t steal fish if the fish is too heavy to carry” or something like that, then the guests rate how interesting that sounds by saying “heeeeee” and hitting a button. Then, these statements are put to the test.

Here’s one I really liked – testing whether dogs would go back to help their owner. The dog is introduced to a person on their walk. Afterwards, the owner gives the dog some food, then makes it seem as though he’s falling off of a cliff. The dog has to choose whether to keep eating, try to save its owner itself, or go back to the person they met minutes before. The outcome is pretty amusing…

If you enjoyed this and would like to watch a few more, copy and paste “トレビアの泉” into YouTube.

My First Errand

I’m sure I’ve mentioned this show before somewhere (I can’t find it though) but this is a really sweet programme. Little kids (usually 3-5 years old) are sent off to go on their first errand – usually to buy something from a nearby shop. They go without their parents, but there’s a camera crew following them so it’s not dangerous at all.

I’ve found a video with some great English text explaining what’s happening -

(Part 2 for those interested)

To find more of this show, copy and paste the following into YouTube - はじめてのおつかい

As a bonus, here’s a really great article my friend wrote on how the west sees Japanese tv as “wacky” when it’s not really any more.

If you’re familiar with Japanese tv and have a favourite show then I’d love to know!

Things to do in Japan – Kiyomizu Temple

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For me, Kiyomizu temple IS Kyoto. I can’t imagine a trip to Japan’s old capital without a visit to this – my favourite temple. People may disagree with me but I believe that the best time to visit is in the Autumn – just look how gorgeous it is!

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You can find it at the top of a big hill with lots of very tempting shopping options – and the geisha experience place I went to. If you like sweet things be sure to try some of the cake shops on the way as they are some of my favourites in Japan!

The whole area is always very busy, but it is the most busy when it’s full of kids on school trips. You can often see them having group photos on the steps in front of the temple itself.

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If you go, be sure to line up for the three magic waters – that’s where the temple gets its name from (‘mizu’ means water!) One spout is for eternal life, one is for health and one is for wisdom. I drank the one for wisdom just before I took my Japanese proficiency test for the first time (…I failed…)

There’s also a great area with a test to see if your love with your partner will last. As you enter the shrine area there’s a little pathway up to the left, and up there you’ll find a start point and an end point. If you can make your way from one to the other with your eyes closed, your love will be forever.

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At sunset the walk down the hill is very pretty – and a perfect opportunity to try out some more cakes!

Have you ever been to Kyoto before?

Expat Life = Neverland

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My first day in London. I sat down for lunch with 5 guys who were working in relation to the gaming business. When I’m not with my Nintendo colleagues, Crytek  is the next place I am likely to find good people to be friends with – gamers are awesome. So, I thought I’d be fitting right in with these 5 guys. I grabbed a gaming magazine from the table and flicked through it while they started talking. However, what they all wanted to talk about wasn’t games and geekery – the wanted to talk about their babies and toddlers! They’re not so much older than myself, but they have real lives, with houses and marriages and babies. I have StreetPass hits and an impressive collection of gifs.

I’m planning to move back to the UK in June. I’ve been feeling tired of the expat life for a little while now and my time in London has only made me even more sure that I need to go back home. A lot of expats move away because they are escaping something – I was purely bored of everything the UK had to offer, but now I am very much a foreigner in my own country. The lunch the runner boy brought us was from a place called Leon, which, apparently, is the new big thing as it does healthy fast food. I had no idea. I also have no idea about TV shows, music, fashion (I really stick out like a sore thumb on the streets here and had to do a mad shopping dash on my first night).

More than that, being an expat seems to hold people back. Of course, living abroad is amazing for your career – whether it’s that you have a great job in your expat country, or the experience gained abroad helping you bag that amazing job back home. But I’ve slowly realised that living abroad has hindered me in growing up; in progressing in life.

The truth is, expat life kinda is like living in Neverland. As much as you grow while living abroad, you also stunt your own growth as it’s kinda like you’re living a dumbed down version of life. Life lite, if you will. Allow me to explain.

1. People back home are getting married, having babies, doing grownup things while you’re derping around being an expat.

It’s hard to make friends abroad – and even harder to find someone to love. Sure, you have to find someone attractive and interesting as you would in your home country, but you have to find someone who matches your future plans as well – if you’re sick of life there and want to leave but they want to stay for 5 more years then things are going to get tricky. Put on top of that the fact that expats all have varying degrees of craziness…it’s no wonder the love life of an expat is a sorry affair.

But click onto facebook and…what’s that? Your best friend from school is engaged? That boy you once snogged on the football pitch now has a baby? That guy from your year 8 science class bought a house with his girlfriend?

Wow, all of that seem like very big steps. I can barely commit to which event to go to on a Friday night, let alone find someone to commit MYSELF to! I can’t imagine a life committed to one person, or a small person, or a pile of bricks. That’s just mental.

2. Speaking of family, since you’re never around, you lose contact with most family members.

My dad’s cousin is really close to the family. He’s been voted one of our favourite family members, and no Christmas day is complete without him sticking wine corks up his nose and running around like he’s 5 years old. But, he’s not exactly the kind of person I’d skype each week. My aunt and uncle are the same – some of my most favourite people in the world, but aside from the odd facebook comment, I never speak with them any more. In fact, my family life has been downgraded to an hour on skype to my mum (with probably 15 minutes with my dad) a week. My sisters, brother… I have no idea what’s going on in their life. I had no idea when older relatives were about to pass away. I missed their last moments, the chance to tell them how much they meant to me. Like I said recently, I missed my sisters becoming young women.

They say that you can’t choose your family, but you can choose your friends, but I think as an expat it may even be the complete opposite. You can’t choose your friends as the pool from which to choose them is so small but you are easily able to choose which family members to keep in touch with. It just takes a lot of effort to make sure you stay in touch.

3. Since it’s a new language and a new culture, you pretty much feel like a teenager anyway.

You’re plonked in your new country but you don’t speak the language – but you want to! After learning how to order a beer and some food, the next step in your language journey is with children’s books. You learn basic words and pick up how to have basic conversations, so you decide to go out and use your language with real people – only, you can’t. I mean, you can say where you’re from and how old you are and whether you like dogs or cats, but real people like to talk about politics and tv and real life things.

So then you want to speak your native language. You try with those same local people but find that their English ability means that they can only talk about Scrubs (that’s how they learnt English).

So you speak with other expats. But they’ve lived in that foreign country for such a long time, their English is weird. You start mixing the local language with English and then the next time you speak on Skype with your family you find that you can’t English anymore. You’ve forgotten words for normal things because you’ve not used that word in over a year. You start to wonder if you can class yourself as fluent in your native language anymore. You decide to stick to talking about which animal you like and leave it at that.

4. And when you don’t like the rules, it’s often possible to “gaijin smash” them.

‘Gaijin smash’ is an awesome phrase. Gaijin means non-Japanese people in Japanese (and is often seen as a derogatory word). The term gaijin smash means when an expat knowingly breaks the rules and if they get caught, they play ignorant and pretend they just had no idea that the rule existed. I gaijin smashed in Japan when I kept a cat in my flat. The Korean students I studied with gaijin smashed when they found a great way to cheat the train ticket system.

Depending on the country, it may be a little difficult to gaijin smash. Asia is awesome. I can’t think of a way I’ve gaijin smashed in Germany.

But if you gaijin smash too much, you run the risk of forgetting what it’s like to have to follow rules in life…like a proper adult. You feel like a cheeky kid, like you can get away with anything you like.

5. Expat life is way more fun than home life.

My Japanese friends always used to laugh and say that all the expats know more about what’s going on in the town than the Japanese people there.

As an expat it’s often easy to lead a life where you do ALL THE THINGS. I don’t know if it’s because the salary may be better than locals’, or because you want to enjoy that country for as long as you’re there, but expats are often the ones who know about all the events, know all the new restaurants, go to all the new places.

Without tv in my life, I can easily fill my days with comedy, improv classes, meetups, events, restaurants…life is simply fun. So fun, in fact, that I wonder if I’ll be as satisfied with a life where I have a long term, loving relationship and small feet to chase around the pile of bricks I’ve used up all my savings on. Hmm.

As Wendy discovered in Neverland, sometimes it’s nice to be in a magical, exciting place for a little while. But, like Wendy, I feel it’s time to me to go back home and move out of the nursery.

Do you know any other ways in which expat life is like living in Neverland? I’d love to read about them in the comments!

What to Eat at an Izakaya

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The other day I took my chummy out for some Japanese food. There’s a Japanese ‘pub’ – izakaya – in Frankfurt and she’d never really Japanese food that wasn’t sushi before. Most people only think of sushi (and maybe tempura) when they think of Japanese food, so I thought I’d write a guide for what to eat at an izakaya.

These aren’t really pubs like an Irish pub, for example. You sit at long tables, either on the floor on cushions or on chairs, and order lots of little plates of food to share between your group. And of course, there’s beer. HUGE glasses of beer. So, what should one eat?

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This is my favourite – age dashi tofu. ‘Age’ means deep fried, ‘dashi’ is a stock made from fish, and tofu is tofu. It’s deep fried tofu in a sauce, basically. Spoon one block of tofu onto your plate then use your chopsticks to pull it apart by pushing each stick away from each other inside the tofu…if that makes sense.

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Japanese’s answer to KFC – kara age. ‘Kara’ has little meaning…it seems (I just did a search). But here we have the ‘age’ again – deep fried goodness. You won’t find bones in this chicken but it will be very very hot. Should be served with mayo, lemon and salt.

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Sure, you can have some sushi if you like. I don’t ever remember eating sushi at an izakaya in Japan before. though.

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But if you really want some rice, what I really recommend is a yaki-onigiri. ‘Yaki’ means ‘grilled’ and an onigiri is a Japanese rice ball. Usually these won’t have fillings in – you’ll be too busy picking the sticky bits of rice out of your teeth to be able to miss any kind of filling.

There are LOADS of other awesome things you can eat at an Izakaya – if you’ve ever been to one then I’d love to know what you liked the best!

Thoughts on Racism

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I have half a dozen posts half written in my drafts but a link on Facebook has fired me up to write about something else completely. A Japanese friend posted a Japanese news link about the town I lived in, Ise. In Ise there’s a traditional shopping street with lots of traditional street food and crafts for sale. It leads up to Naiku, a very holy shrine that’s absolutely gorgeous and the main pulling point for the city. The king of that traditional shopping street is the “Akafuku” rice cake shop. Rice that has been hammered into little blobs are covered in red azuki beans and sold in little wooden boxes. Once a month they sell special edition cakes that we used to get up at 5am and queue for 2 hours to buy.

This was all part of the charm of the place I consider to be my home town. I spent just two years there, but I loved it with all my heart. It’s a gorgeous place, and the locals are so welcoming. Some days I completely forgot that I was different from most of the people I saw around me.

But the owners of that cake shop, the shop that dominates that whole street, think that Ise would be a lot better off without foreigners there. The former head of the company, Mr Hamada, was recently at a conference in Tsu and said such things as “with foreigners here, it’s just not right… Ise is the soul of Japan, so it should be a place that makes Japanese people happy. It’s not there for foreigners”.

I…just…

What?!

On one hand, this isn’t surprising at all as this douche (whoops did I say that?!) is 79 years old and old people tend to be more racist than the norm, no matter which country you’re in. On the other hand, the people of Ise, people of all ages, were really supportive of myself and the other non-Japanese in the town. After all, there were only a handful of us there and it was very rare that you’d get a non-Japanese tourist in the town. It was the kind of place where, if I saw another non-Japanese person, I’d narrow my eyes and demand to know who they were and why they were in “our town”.

I’d say that outright dumb racism like this is pretty rare in Japan (unless it’s against Chinese or Korean people in which case you’d be swimming in it there). I’d even say that outright dumb racism is more visible in the UK; just today I was listening to the Jeremy Vine show on BBC Radio 2 and even though I knew that every day he picks a stupid racist topic, I still was shocked when he had a whole section which could be labelled as “OH NO don’t let the Romanians in they’ll take all our jobs and we’ll die!” It was really ridiculous – and even though people were phoning in saying that Polish people in the UK do the jobs Brits don’t want to do and that Romanians don’t want to go to the UK (they’ve been able to come to Germany for ages and there’s not a problem here), Jeremy was still spouting out loads of racist crap.

I can’t imagine what life as a foreigner (or even a non-white person) must be like in Britain. But I guess I have a little idea from living in Japan, as it was eventually the racism that got to me and made me want to leave. There was nothing telling me to go home (I was there, after all, on the taxpayer’s dime teaching their kids) but there were people who refused to sit next to me on the train, women who held their handbags a bit tighter when they saw me, colleagues who spoke to me like I had some kind of mental problem when I can understand Japanese perfectly fine.

On top of that you have all the innocent bits of racism “oh, can you use chopsticks?” “you can’t probably eat this because your stomach is foreign”, “look mum! That person’s nose is so tall!!”

I could sit here and type about all the different kinds of racism that happen in Japan and in Britain until the cows come home. The fact is that I really wonder if there will ever be a day when humans will be seen as humans and not a threat or a hinderance or dumb just because of the skin they’re in. What’s great about the JET Programme is that it puts people like myself in little towns like Ise and forces people like Mr Hamada to come face to face with people from other countries. It’s so much easier to hate on a certain kind of person when you’ve never met a person like that before. The world is getting smaller and so many people are living abroad that I hope that one day people are less afraid of people they’re not familiar with and that we can all live with a heck of a lot less racism.

I’d like to end with a letter one of my students wrote to me when I left Japan. She was in the 1st grade so started school in the April and I left in the July to start my new life in Frankfurt. I hope people like Mr Hamada and Jeremy Vine become “able to like” foreigners as well soon, too.

SAM_1928_1

“Thank you for the past three months. Of course, my best memory of you will be the fun games you did with us in class, and also when you passed by me in the hall. I was always really happy when you spoke to me and smiled at me. I wasn’t too keen on foreigners before. But because of the classes with you I’m able to like them now. It was only 3 short months but thank you so much!”