Once again it was a privilege to visit this very foreign country, and I have some thoughts about this particular visit. Taking Evan (15) along made me look at the place a little differently. Since I first started coming here in the mid-seventies there have obviously been some changes. Surprisingly, the use of English has not seemed to have grown. There is less of it around, although many of the traffic signs have some English on them, which was never the case 35 years ago.
At the same time there are a lot more Gauguin (foreigners) on the city streets. In Tokyo, it looked like at least 5% of the population were outsiders. Many of them speak Japanese and do so well. It is a very difficult language, and reading it is almost impossible.
Sailing around the edge of the Izu peninsular, we were struck by the big difference in wealth of the city compared to the country. Tokyo and Yokohama are obviously rich places; the people are well dressed, and the goods in the shop windows are expensive. The country on the other hand has a dilapidated appearance and there is very little in the way of amusement, restaurants or bars. In some places nothing at all. It's not a cultural thing it's a lack of disposable income.
Ten years ago it was amusing to see that the growth of cellphones was being driven almost entirely by teenage girls. They were the ones with their eyes focused on these little devices. Today its spread to everyone. We took an 8:30 p.m. commuter train from Tokyo to Yokohama and everyone was locked in on their cells, texting all the time, and scrolling up and down. They were also anaethsetized to the outside world with iPod earbuds crammed into their ears. It was noticeable that very few read papers or books - ten years ago it was nearly all reading materials.
The costs of everything are magnified by the poor dollar. The rate over the last decade has slipped from about 110 Yen to the dollar, to 80. The formula of knocking off the last two zeros to get an approximate dollar amount doesn't hold up well these days. On top of that this is a very expensive place to visit. Dinner bills are usually about $50 to $75 a head. A glass of beer will set you back around $10 to $20 dollars. Taxis start their meters at about $10.
This is a fine society. If anything, the beginnings of city graffiti have stopped and reversed. There is even less than five years ago. There is absolutely no trash in the streets and the Japanese are obsessed with "separating" their rubbish. No doubt living on a very densely populated island enforces politeness and rule obeying, or war would break out.
The dress code is very strong. As it's the high summer season, "salary-men" are in "biz lite," which is short sleeve white shirts, open necked, with black trousers and black hard shoes. Women in dresses and suits. Children equally well clothed. I have managed to avoid the hot season here before; and it is very hot indeed. A lot of people carry towels to wipe their skin, and it's a good job the trains are all air conditioned.
However it's obvious that the price to pay for such order is more control over the population. As a resident alien, Michael had a visit from a young policewoman, who came round to check a few details on his registration card. She spoke some English and was extremely polite, but insistent that some details were missing and he had to write them on a form. He grumbled but complied.
If the pedestrian light is against you, you do not cross, no matter how empty the road. I did wonder if there might be a fault in the system sometimes, but the Japanese seem to be prepared to wait forever.
We fly back today and arrive a couple of hours before we left! It's rather analogous to the change of cultures we will experience. I'm dreading the jet lag next week.