Japan, then and now.

If you are a young whippersnapper reading this you probably think that 1994 was a terribly long time ago. To me, it was just a few years ago. As any middle-aged bore will tell you, we feel the same now as we did back then in our early twenties. You may think we are dull old fuckwits, baldies and squares when you talk to us but we think we’re your peers. Anyway, why am I talking like an annoying old uncle trying to be down with the kids? Well, I’ve been reminiscing, you see. For next month, 18 years ago, I first set foot on these islands. It doesn’t seem so long ago, and yet everything was different.

Of course, everything was different everywhere 18 years ago. Normal people didn’t know what the Internet was, mail needed stamps, and very few people had mobile phones. Those that did might have had a holster contraption to carry it in as it was the size and weight of a house brick. Communication was planned and arranged and took at least a little effort. It was not as spontaneous and scattered as it is today. And what that meant was that when I arrived in Japan all those years ago, I couldn’t post on Facebook to say I had arrived, upload a photo of my apartment and share my life with friends at home in bite-sized, or indeed byte-sized, pieces. I left home, and most people didn’t hear of me again for weeks or months. Some didn’t hear from me for years. More than a few I have never seen since.

Showing photographs to the family required you to take your film down to the shop and pay to get it developed and hope there was a nice picture somewhere. If there wasn’t and you really wanted to include a picture then the accompanying letter would be delayed by a few days at best, but more likely by much longer. You’d have to use up another whole film and then get that developed. Letters themselves were hard. After all, you couldn’t just send a two-line letter to a friend thousands of miles away like you might with email. They’d either be insulted by the brevity or worried for your sanity. Email has removed that unwritten rule that letters must be at least a page or so. Back in the nineties you had to think about enough stuff to write without being dreadfully dull. My handwriting got much bigger, the spaces between words got wider and I spent much more time than one should chewing on the end of pens.

Phone calls weren’t much easier. For a start, getting a phone took quite a bit of money. A landline was usually bought from an outgoing teacher for between about 30,000 and 50,000 yen. To buy one new cost about 80,000 yen. I didn’t have that kind of money back then. I lived for a year without a phone of any kind. For me to call home required a trip to the station, outside which Iranians sold dodgy international phone cards. Then I had to go to an ‘International Phone Booth’ where I froze or sweated as I spoke, depending on the season. For a year, nobody could call me at all.

When you moved to Japan from the UK in 1994, you really did leave your culture behind in ways that you don’t have to now. For me, I was also stepping into the unknown. I had seen a few pictures of Japan in a book I got from the library. There was nowhere else that I knew where to find some. I had never heard of any of the things that are well-known around the world now, simple things like anime, izakaya and onsen. Japan was a mystery to me and once I arrived I had no choice but to be swallowed up by it.

There was no easy way out. I had no satellite TV, no YouTube, and precious few places to get English books. I could rent videos, of course, but couldn’t have them sent from home as the video systems used in the UK and Japan differed. I lapped up any English television shows I could find. In the early afternoons I watched an old fellow teach us how to paint, and shortly afterwards a woman imparting her wisdom on dog training. The highlight was the Sunday night Hollywood movie shown on television and introduced by an old man with a farewell catchphrase of ‘Sayonara, sayonara, sayonara!’

I look back at those days with fondness. Everything was new. Everything was unfamiliar. When old timers earnestly told me, ‘In Japan, the nail that sticks up must be hammered down,’ I listened to them and took note of their wisdom rather than thinking, ‘Oh fuck off, with your Japanology shite.’

I wonder how new and unfamiliar Japan feels to the young men and women who arrive here these days. They have seen it in videos and photographs, they know the proverbs, they probably know people who have been here before. They surely arrive and think, ‘Oh, it’s just how it looks on that J-vlogger’s YouTube video, or in so-and-so’s Facebook pictures,’ rather than stepping off a plane almost completely blind.

Do I think the old way is better, more real? Christ, no. I am far happier with all the creature comforts modern technology allows, and wouldn’t for a second want to go back to the old days. At the same time, though, I enjoy the nostalgia and hindsight that time allows. It was different back then. Life itself was different, of course, but so was the experience of moving somewhere so far from home. I prefer the way we are able to live abroad now, but still, whenever I let my mind wander back, I am ever so pleased to have witnessed the changes.

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10 Responses to Japan, then and now.

  1. I arrived here pre-Facebook. I can’t imagine pre-Internet.

  2. Momus says:

    On my 1993 trip to Japan (my second) I mailed two naughty videos back to my address in London, praying feverishly that the UK customs wouldn’t open and confiscate them. I remember they were hilariously expensive, about £50 each. I was able to watch them because I’d bought, on Tottenham Court Road, a multi-system VHS player which knew how to read NTSC, SECAM and PAL. That cost something like £400, and had only just been invented. Shortly after this, I realised it was much cheaper to fly actual Japanese women to London.

  3. kamo says:

    I went to Australia for a student exchange in 1998. I got in early enough that my hotmail address is actually just my initials and a two digit number. My grandad’s car had a four digit numberplate from before they were standardized, and that’s how people seem to view my email address when I tell them. A ‘heritage email address’ if you will.

    I was also training some fresh meat a while back, and one of them was getting all excited about the Arab Spring. He said something to the effect of it ‘being the most significant shift in global politics in my lifetime.’ I countered that the Berlin Wall coming down was more significant. You can probably tell how this story is going to end.

  4. jonallen says:

    nodding my head all the way through that one, ( not that I arrived in Japan that long ago, no where near) but totally agree with the sentiments.

  5. Gosh, this all sounds familiar (including the Sunday night movie sayonara guy with the unbelievable eyebrows). My first stay in Japan began in 1995 as an international student and all this sounds v.familiar. Mum got special dispensation to send one 1-page fax a week to me from her workplace and I used to spend 100 yen sending a 1-page fax back once a week from the international centre in Kumamoto. I used the internet for the first time during that year (Netscape on one of the university Macs (before Apple was a fashion statement)), spending an hour or so a day reading the Telegraph online (back when it had one of the best news sites going). Pocket bells were the closest thing most people got to mobile telephony, but even they were an unimaginable luxury for the average international student. Communications had improved tremendously by the time I went back on JET in 1998 and the advent of Skype was a huge breakthrough – no more brief exchanges of essential info on the phone – one could finally have a proper chat with family and friends. Anyway, really great post – thank you for sending me on a nostalgia trip!

    • Thanks for the comments. I completely forgot about pocket bells – never had one but remember all my students having them! Yes – agree Skype changed everything. Email put an end to letter writing and skype put an ened to hefty phone bills!

  6. maiku says:

    Nice work! You really captured the mid-90s Japanese experience and brought back some wonderful, painful memories…

    In 1996 dial-up Internet was available but phoning an ISP 5 miles away cost nearly as much as a call to the US. NTT had a deal where you could pay 2000 yen per month for unlimited local calls between midnight and 6am. I’d connect before bed, run an app to download news articles all night, then read them at work the next day.

    For international calls we’d use a callback service. Dial a number in the US, hang up after a single ring, then wait for a computer to call you back. You answer and dial a US number at a reduced rate, as if the call originated from the US. Sticking it to the NTT man…brilliant!

    I remember watching Under Siege on TV two or three times that year because English programming was so rare. And I don’t even like Steven Seagal…

    • Thanks for your comments. Yep, it’s definitely changed a lot since then. We couldn’t even have imagined how much the Internet would change things. Looking forward to seeing what the next 10 years brings!

  7. jk says:

    When I first went to Japan as a high school exchange student in 2001 there was internet but I don’t think it was so popular over there. My host family did not have a computer so I sent hand written letters to friends and family for the first couple to few months. Soon though my host mother told me she had found a nearby internet cafe that I could use. I usually went there on the weekends when I didn’t have school for an hour or two. I didn’t mind paying for it. I guess I went so often that the shop owners said I could use the internet for free if I helped them with their English. I had no idea how to do that! I was only 18! I tried to use worksheets from my own English class at my high school. I was more of just a helper in that class. The owners at the internet cafe didn’t really like the worksheets, I think they just enjoyed making conversation with me in English. Also, some classes were just too difficult for me to grasp with my level of Japanese like math and biology. So I was allowed to have independent study period in the library. I discovered they had a computer lab that they let me use so I was then able to have access to the internet during the week as well. I went back for a 2 week visit in 2008. Facebook existed then but I don’t think smartphones were that popular. It’s certainly still very different now than it was even in 2008 which was only 4 years ago! Hopefully I’ll make it back to Japan at the end of this year for another 2 week visit. And by next year I hope to move there.

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