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Living in Tokyo, Speaking Japanese, and Being a Gaijin: Already Hatachi

You're Not Going to Believe This Monday July 5 2010

The blog's been off for two years. Even during the last four years, I was barely posting, barely writing, and barely producing anything of interest on this space.

Between 2006 and early 2010, I worked for a company. Full time. I gave a lot of my time, a lot of my energy, and I met some fantastic people (some of which are now my business partners, and my girlfriend). So, I can't complain: I did well.

But, life in a salaryman's job doesn't really help one get around to writing. Oh, sure, I wasn't really committed to writing anyway, but I can also say that the lifestyle in Tokyo doesn't really support it, either. There's ALWAYS something to do, and blogging requires commitment. When you get free time, that's when you're Doing Something Else You Should Have Already Done.

Also, from May 2009 to present, I was setting up a company while working full time, and with a girlfriend. Priorities, priorities. I had no weekends, which is primarily when I wrote. Also, from May 2008 forward, I managed a team, which was a lot harder than just working by myself. Enough excuses.

Here's a brief update; I've decided not to kill this blog for now.

  1. I started my own mobile development company with 2 former coworkers. It is called Long Weekend LLC, and I implore you to go over to that site and find out why. I blog regularly over there, because in the new future, or at least the future of our company, there is no work, and there is no play - there is only life. So I keep it all over there. A blog about lifestyle design.
  2. I briefly left Japan and visited Australia, next I'll be visiting Europe, Japan again, the US, Japan again, and who knows. If you want to find me, e-mail me. It's always been the best way, and my e-mail address has not changed for seven years. Or use the aforementioned company website.
  3. One day, I'm going to repost the archives from 2002-2005, which were some of my most prolific, and excuse me, funniest writings. I took them down because I got a Real Job, and I thought some of it wasn't appropriate. I was right. But at the same time, I'm now designing a lifestyle where that doesn't matter any more.
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Japanese Television Sunday July 6 2008

I just can't understand Japanese television. Sure, the little bits that make it on to YouTube about folding a t-shirt in 3 seconds end up crossing over and convincing everyone that television here is wacky, entertaining, and different; there definitely are some redeeming aspects. Human tetris was also entertaining, I can't take that away from them.

However, as a discerning consumer, I fail to see the overall value proposition on Japanese television. This morning, Adam and I were sharing breakfast and coffee, and the programming consisted of the following scene:

(1) Old Japanese male show host (required for any Japanese show),
(2) Cutesy but not hot female co-host (required, usually half-Japanese or holds an otherwise interesting trait),
(3) Gallery of attractive, young Japanese women whose role is to overreact to any item discussed on the show,
(4) The particular "main event" for a given show.

(1) and (2) will introduce (4), who will thereby interact with (3) about the topic that (4) is knowledgeable about. Today's theme, and no, I am not lying, was that (4) was holding an electric guitar and playing, at the request of (3), various commercial jingles that he had penned for a marginally-well-known bean sprout producer in Japan. Apparently, he had written over 100 jingles, all of which were rejected by the president of the bean sprout company, but they were nevertheless assumedly entertaining, so he was playing them for (3).

I'll put this one out there so I don't need to repeat myself: bean sprouts. What? I mean, seriously, what the...?

Second, Japan really needs to outgrow this idea that company presidents control everything. This comes from a deeply-rooted cultural instinct that normal people like you and me cannot start our own company, we cannot be successful, and that only company presidents and directors are allowed to lead the special, privledged lives that they lead. I am not sure if this is a by-product of WWII or even the class system of the pre-Meiji era, but it's definitely very evident in modern culture.

The whole thing is a sham, I am sure that the marketing department of the bean sprout company is paying the television channel for this sham they are calling programming, and that the whole thing is ridiculous product placement (which is the key to any television show in Japan).

Maybe it is possible, though, that the president of this company himself personally insisted on approving every jingle to be used in a commercial. It would fall in line with the news we've heard recently about the ex-president of Nova, the shady English school, who was arrested. There were reports that he was in such tight control of the company that even wastebasket purchase orders had to be personally signed off by him.

Why, you ask, would I choose to live in such a city?

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Using Rikaichan in Firefox 3.0 Sunday June 29 2008

For those of you that speak Japanese, are studying Japanese, or otherwise have any need to instantaneously look up Japanese characters on web pages, I recommend Rikaichan.

I was using Firefox 2 when it notified me on June 22nd that a Rikaichan update was available. I installed it, as normal, and then a few days later updated to Firefox 3 when it came out to the general public.

At that point, Rikaichan stopped working -- or rather, the installed Japanese-English dictionary was no longer appearing as a compatible plug-in for Firefox 3.

Should anyone have the same problem and stumble upon this page, simply uninstall the dictionary (leave the plug-in itself), and then re-download and install it. This fixed my installation, and I am sure it would sort out the bugs in yours as well.

Versioning. Sigh.

The trip to Hokkaido Sunday June 22 2008

I've already uploaded the pictures, but I have yet to put comments on them. For those of you who don't know, I just completed a 5-day cycling tour in Hokkaido with some coworkers. 5 days, 715 kilometers (that's 444 miles for those of you who don't speak metric), and over 7,500 meters of vertical climb.

Yeah, I'm not going to lie. It was hard. But truth be told, it wasn't as hard as I imagined it may be.

I first bought my road bike on March 2nd, and I set out on Day 1 of the journey on June 1st. 90 days isn't particularly long -- I am slightly amazed at what the mind and body can do in a reasonably short amount of time when one sets one's mind towards a particular goal. Jon was joking that when I first started in March, a day's ride of 70 kilometers seemed like a big deal. Now, that's a nice healthy ride, but nothing I couldn't easily handle. Heck, I do 22-25 a day when I go back and forth between work.

Observation number 2: Hokkaido is much, much larger than I had originally imagined. Certainly, in context of the US, Japan itself is small, but when you deal with Japan, Japanese roads/traffic, and mountains, you start feeling like something 100 miles away is very, very distant-- because it isn't easy to get there.

Originally, I had thought we'd be going all the way around Hokkaido. "All the way around must be something like 500 miles," I thought. Wrong-- we did a big loop that encircled only about one-fifth of the size of the entire island.

This only means one thing I suppose: I need to go back and do a different tour!

You are not worthy of this cab ride Saturday April 19 2008

One of the best things about my company is that approximately once every six months, most people in the company who have been there for any length of time (there is a qualification, yes) convene and talk about management-assigned topics. Essentially, the senior management says, "we have identified these points as things that need to be explored in our future, now talk amongst yourselves," thereby allowing most people in the company to have a say in the future direction. That's cool.

Even better, this meeting usually takes place on a Friday, whereafter we usually have a great dinner and drinks. Last night was no exception. I found myself in a karaoke room at 1:30am with a few brave souls, slightly tipsy, rocking out to my colleague's excellent rendition of "Me and Bobby McGee". No, really, she's a professional singer. I'm not being sarcastic. It is really good.

As anyone who has been in Japan longer for one Saturday night should know, 1:30am is well past the time the trains stop running, so anyone who stays out that late must be in for an all-nighter until 5:00am, or must take a taxi home. In the middle of the night, from Ginza, where our office is, it's about 3,500 yen to get home. That's about, at the current rate, $35. Split down the middle with a colleague, it's not so bad.

So, 3 of us were standing in a slight drizzle at 1:40am, searching for a cab. There are plenty of cabs in Ginza.

Finding one that will pick you up may be another issue.

We were on a back street, and there was a cab slowly approaching us. I attempted to flag it down; I could see the driver's face. He was focused straight ahead, hands slightly tense on the wheel, to the extent that it was unnatural and clear that he was avoiding us. The light at the intersection turned red, so he stopped. I walked towards the vehicle and looked at him again. Still nothing. I then got in front of the cab itself, and flailed my arms with a smile on my face. By this point, I had given up on getting in this cab, but I just wanted to make my point.

He rolled down the window and spoke.

"What are you doing? Get out from in front of the cab... it's dangerous!"

"We'd like a ride. Your cab indicates that you're accepting passengers," I shot back.

"I'm going home--" he said.

All cabs in Japan have an LED in the front window that indicates their current status, and it is very easy to see the difference between "out of service" and "empty".

"Your sign says 'empty', if you're going home, why doesn't it say 'out of service'?" I asked.

"I'm going to Chiba, I'm going home," he said, assuming that we did not live near Chiba, so we would have to accept his answer.

During this whole time, I continued to stand in front of his cab. He cocked the wheels and attempted to inch past me, but I moved, and my knees were on his bumper. This aggrevated him further, but like my father, don't mess with me when I am right. As a licensed cab operator in the city of Tokyo, you have an obligation to pick up anyone who wants a ride. Period.

Back to the Chiba excuse, it turns out that one of the 3 of us does in fact live in Chiba.

"She's going to Chiba," I said, pointing to the Japanese co-worker who was with us. I figured he would take her, as she is Japanese. I was wrong?

"I'm going home! Get out of the way!"

I couldn't let this clear discrimination stand.

"What? You don't like foreigners?! Is that it? If you're out of service, put that on your sign. This woman is going to Chiba, and you're going to take her there."

By this point he had inched the wheels to the extent where if I didn't re-position myself, he could "get away". I'd already decided I wouldn't want to reward this jackass with my money anyhow, so I moved back and he went off on his way.

We caught the next cab. He was a nice guy, and I made sure to tell him the full story. He sounded sympathetic, and I truly believe he was. He tried to explain it away: "you probably live in the city, and he wants someone who lives far away so he can get a higher fare," he offered with empathy.

Like many other things in Japan, there are rules that everyone follows, with little exception. At the same time, there are rules that no one follows, with little exception.

I decided yet again after last night that as long as I can possibly avoid it, I will never ride in another taxi in Japan again. Sadly, this isn't the first time I've promised that to myself.

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Broke into the Old Apartment Monday January 28 2008

As you know, the blog has been offline for awhile. We apologize for the inconvenience. Hereon begins the story, the excuse, or the events of the last two months.

Simon told me over six months ago that someday, he would propose to his then-girlfriend, and at that point, I'd probably need to move from my cozy 6-mat room to bigger and greener pastures. I had just moved in fall of 2006, so needless to say, I wasn't particularly exciting about having to repeat it. I had already discovered it to be time-consuming, fruitless, and aggravating process as a foreigner.

To make matters more complicated, Simon had spent a long time finding our apartment. The rent market in the area I was living is a sizable 10-15% higher than what we were paying, and there are a minimal number of layouts like the 3-bedroom plus combined living/dining layout we had. I was later told by a real estate agent that the "rate of return per square meter is higher when landlords divide up a unit into smaller studios". Thus, in an expense neighborhood such as mine (which I had never known it to be), 3-bedroom apartments are rare.

Thus, to begin the search meant looking at housing websites for months, finding nothing. An occasional phone call to a real estate agent either found (a) the place already gone, (b) the place did not rent to foreigners, and/or (c) they wanted 4-6 months' of rent up-front. And more than half of that never comes back to you in the form of a "deposit". Faced with the idea of paying so much rent up-front, I decided it was best if I get roommates to help cover the costs immediately.

December 2007. I am soon to go back to the States for a trip, and Simon has pretty much told me that he'd like to have his girlfriend move in by the time I get back. Slightly desperate, I posted an article on a "roomshare" group on Mixi, or Japanese MySpace, looking for suckers who'd want to live with me. To my surprise, I received a mail from a Korean guy who was, appropriately, looking for a place to live at the same time I was. He is 30, pretty straight-up, and seemed like the kind of guy that I could live with.

We met on a Saturday morning in mid-December, and we searched for apartments all day long. This is one of the most annoying tasks I can think of. As if seeing many, many places with some annoying real estate agent wasn't enough, I also had to consider the feelings of a person I barely knew in finding an appropriate place. Yet, somehow, by the end of that day, we had found The Perfect Place. 3-bedroom, cheap, in a beautiful, quiet area in one of the nicest areas of Tokyo. 10 minutes from Shinjuku, 15 minutes from Shibuya. Yeah.

So, I forked over a month of rent, signed all the paperwork (save the contract), and went back to the States for a holiday. During the break, I coordinated with the real estate agent as to when I could move in. That's when the trouble began to start.

I was scheduled to return to Japan on January 4th, and despite making a down payment on December 21st (the room was empty, mind you), the real estate agent was telling me I couldn't move in until at least the 7th. That would be 3 days of no-place-to-live. He made it very clear that around the New Year, it was hard to assemble the staffs necessary to clean and put the place in order (a seemingly-required process for moving in Tokyo, as all of the real estate agents have contracts with these vendors with built-in kick-backs. If you are wondering who pays for the cleaning, take a guess).

So, when I came back to Japan, sure enough, I was sleeping on the couch. I had told Simon I would move out, so I found my room no longer. All of my stuff was in boxes in the living room, and I was sleeping on a small fold-out bed in what was now "Sayaka's (Simon's fiance) office". The 7th became the 8th, and there it was -- the day before I was supposed to go pick up the keys and sign the final contracts.

The phone rings, which is never a positive sign. Seriously. Whenever the phone rings, something's going to happen.

It's the real estate agent.

"I just got a call from the landlord, he said that he wants to see me at the place; I am not sure what it is about but I am going now. When I find out, I'll give you a call; I am sure everything is fine," For those of you that don't work in sales, "I'm sure everything is fine" means "I have no idea what is happening right now but I am just praying that this sorts out cause I need that bonus, hey, pass me the joint".

The next morning, i.e., the day I am supposed to pick up the key, I called the real estate agent to ask what the meeting was about.

"Oh, I think everything's fine. There's just one thing that needs to be sorted out, and I am meeting the landlord today at 4pm to discuss. I'm also meeting the rental company at 1pm." (Yes, the rental company and the agent are different companies, which means you pay even more in commission and fees!) I asked if there was any problem with my situation. "Oh, no, it's not a problem for you at all; it is just something we need to sort out before you move in," he said. Fine enough. I went back to work.

To cut to the chase, I got another call at 6pm. I had intended to pick up the key after work. The van with all of my stuff was loaded.

Apparently, the landlord of this place owns 3 other apartments, and has refinanced each multiple times. He is about to go bankrupt. The debtors are going to repossess his properties in an effort to collect on their debts. This means that in a few months' time, he may not own the apartment any longer. As a non-owner, he can't very well rent it to me.

Now, the real estate agent works on commission, so he had been promising me the moon to keep me warm, as he needed to buy time to run around between the rental company and the landlord to see if there wasn't some way that he could make it work. For example, if I were to move in immediately, it may give the landlord the burst of capital he needed to pay off some creditors, for example.

Legally, if I did move in, I would have 6 months' to find a new place, should I be asked to move by a new owner. With all of my stuff in the van ready to go, and not having a place to live, I told the real estate agent "fine", but he told me that as an agent, they collect a fee, and he cannot very well collect a fee on a property that may be repossessed in 2-3 months. It's against their principles, he said. So, it's against principle to do something (rather, to allow something, as he had already done the work) to help me out in the short term, but it's fine to neglect your job, not check up on the landlord until the day I am supposed to move in? What a work ethic. That's a fine time to be taking the high moral ground.

I knew from the beginning this guy wasn't that smart. Lesson learned to go with your gut feeling. I should have kept looking. Lucky for him that he introduced me the perfect place (which, it was now clear why the rent was cheap: the owner was doing anything and everything to get someone inside).

So, there I was. No place to live, no prospects, and a full work schedule. That was January.