news editorial Living in Japan

All articles

Living in Japan

I first moved to Japan as an 18 year old college student who knew very little about what the country was really like. My father is Japanese, and I visited many times growing up, but moving there taught me in ways visiting never could. But while living there, I never really understood how much the country had changed me. It wasn’t until after I came back to Singapore that I realized how much of Japan I had taken home with me.

One thing that strikes most visitors about Japan is how cleanly and orderly everything is. Is there any other city in the world so massive yet so pristine? There is order, and everything functions smoothly. There are 38 million people living in and around this ancient capital, and most of them are very conscious of their impact on those around them. Have you ever lost a wallet on public transport? Did you get it back? Was there money left inside? In Japan, the chances of getting that wallet back fully stocked are very high indeed. I can’t count how many times I needed to run into the bank to get some cash but had a bicycle basket full of shopping goodies. I just left them there, and lo and behold they were still there when I came out again. Have you ever seen random items like a hanky hanging on a fence on your walk home from the station? Someone has probably found it and put it at eye level so the owner will be able to spot them if they’re back.

Pink wallet

All that are lost will be found (most of the time). Photo credit: Japan Times

Speaking of cleanliness (and I apologize if this is TMI), I just can’t stand using the toilet if there’s no bidet. Thanks Toto! In general, cleanliness is a fundamental Japanese value; you will also see shop owners sweeping the streets before opening and after closing, and even throwing buckets of water in the evenings to clean. Trash cans are so hard to find but you will hardly find any litter (and there are no fines for this!). Even little kids get in on the act; when they want to stare out of the window of a train, you’ll notice their mothers have removed their shoes and placed them neatly side-by-side on the floor.

Bathroom in Disneyland Hotel

Clean toilets that have amazing bidets. Photo credit: Norina Masaki-Joyce

In Japan, I quickly learned that the process is just as important as the result. Following the proper steps in their proper order is the proper way to get things done, no exceptions, even when those steps seem unnecessary or extraneous. This makes the act of creation into something like a Zen meditation: it keeps you focused and present in the moment, and enables you to more easily slip into the state of Flow, which psychologists have identified as a key component to living a healthy, happy life. This focus on process is also very much in line with the current push towards mindfulness in work and life. Even coming in to work in the morning, Japanese employees let out a hearty “ohayo gozaimasu!” For meal prep, laying out your ingredients and tools and then slowly but surely working your way through every step of the process is part of what makes the food over there so damn tasty. It’s also one reason why my kitchen is my happy place.

Morning greeting

Employees greet the team with an ohayo gozaimasu! Photo credit: Amelie Marie

One process I learned to really enjoy was the act of getting dressed up for formal events. Coming from a country where we wear sandals 90% of the time, I found Japan’s formality a little bit stiff at first. However, now I take every chance I can get to dress properly for the occasion. There’s something about carefully donning your best formal wear that makes you consider more deeply the significance of the occasion. That’s not always the most practical thing in steamy Singapore but successfully suiting up is always cause for a celebration. After all, you are what you wear!

Getting dressed

Wearing a kimono for Coming-of-Age Day. Photo credit: Norina Masaki-Joyce

Quiet moments where you are simply there in the moment with no distractions are treasures that too often we let slip by unawares. Have you ever noticed how noisy the modern world is? Have you thought about how that noise pollution can damage your health? Even in the center of Tokyo, we found places of peace, quiet and beauty. The first apartment I lived in with my husband was a stone’s throw away from the heart of Tokyo – Tokyo Dome, where the Giants play, was a 10 minute walk away, and the imperial palace wasn’t much further on. Yet on Sundays our neighbourhood was so quiet the only sound to be heard was an aspiring opera singer practicing an aria: This general awareness of others’ serenity extends to rush hour; you won’t hear anyone’s phone on the train, as they’ve all got theirs set to manner mode.

Sakura and shrine

I loved the peaceful combination of nature and shrines. Photo credit: Norina Masaki-Joyce

Another quiet moment I came to cherish was my hiking time. The trains do get awfully packed over there, and I often chose to walk to my destination rather than squeeze on board a train. Some nights I happened to miss the last train, and had no choice but to walk (or fork out a day’s salary for a taxi – not a good alternative). I discovered on these walks that parts of Tokyo I never would have seen otherwise. Seeing the world from a pedestrian’s perspective really changes your views of the city you live in.

Hiking by the river and forest

There are many amazing hiking spots in Japan. Photo credit: Norina Masaki-Joyce

One final mental tool I took away from my time in Japan is a coping mechanism that helps me get through the pain of the daily grind – a three word philosophy that helps me put things into perspective and look beyond the slings and arrows life hurls your way. Gaman, Ganbare, Shouganai. Gaman means something like perseverance; when things get tough, you get tougher and push through because you know it’s only temporary. Ganbare means do your best, no matter what you do. Shouganai means “it can’t be helped,” meaning control what you can control and let go of the things you can’t. It’s a simple philosophy, but damn effective, and I find myself uttering these three little words several times over the course of a day.

Golden-gai, Shinjuku

I really like you, Japan! Photo credit: Norina Masaki Joyce

I no longer live in Japan, but I will take a little piece of Japan with me wherever I go. It’s a gift I am eternally grateful for. Arigatou, Nippon!

senbei rice cracker

Thank you Japan! Photo credit: Norina Masaki-Joyce