Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Day 12: In the Presence of Merchandise Part 2

Honestly, I’m not really sure how to write this day. The second day we spent in Akihabara was one of the most exciting days for us, and all of us found one or two things that we hadn’t expected to find but really wanted. On the other hand, written up, it will mostly just end up being, “we went here, and then we bought this, and then we went there, and then we bought that,” which I can’t imagine being very interesting to read (especially given that the Nakano Broadway entry is almost exactly like that anyway).

After some thought, I have therefore decided to dedicate this post to the pros and cons of the idea of moving to Japan. It’s something that was originally fun to think about when my thoughts were on auto-pilot but now, having visited Japan and done significantly more research, it seems like a much more serious prospect. I’ll interleave the paragraphs with pictures of what we bought in Akihabara on this day, so it doesn’t feel too much like a wall of text.
I never thought that I would find an
Akari figurine

The first and most obvious problem with moving to Japan is the language. Learning a language is always difficult, but the written forms of Japanese and Chinese are notoriously so, mainly because of Kanji. Outside of the 72 letters that make up their basic alphabets (Hiragana and Katakana), Kanji are Chinese characters that have been adopted into the Japanese language. There are about 2000 ‘core’ Kanji, which are required to be taught to all Japanese people in schools (yes, the Japanese do spend a fair portion of their school life learning to write their own language), and the vast majority of books and newspapers limit themselves to those. Reading academic papers and technical literature will usually require learning more than that, however. Most Kanji can be pronounced in multiple ways (some have as many as eight readings) and have multiple meanings (some as many as fifteen). There are ways in which the Kanji system makes learning vocabulary easier (you don’t have to remember ‘telephone’ is ‘denwa’, you can remember it as being a combination of the kanji for ‘electricity’ and the kanji for ‘speak’, for example), but for the most part, it only makes everything much harder.

The second major problem with the language is that finding time to learn it consistently at university has been really difficult. It isn’t like I couldn’t find time, but if I did, I would have to do it at the expense of other things – the chance of getting a first, for example, which still isn’t beyond the bounds of possibility. Learning language in fits and starts rather than doing some every day is a terrible way of doing it and, in the two years I’ve been learning it, I’ve probably only made about three months worth of the progress that I would have made had I been doing it full time. That can be pretty frustrating, and it feels like I’ve got a number of years to go before I could think about actually living in Japan.
The legendary Natsume figurine

Outside of the language, a further obstacle is that the Japanese just aren’t very accepting of foreigners. Unlike the UK, they’ve had a very tight immigration policy for a very long time. They’re beginning to relax a little, but fundamentally, there’s not much legislation around in Japan that says that you can’t discriminate against foreigners when making decisions about who to hire and who to promote. This makes it quite difficult for foreigners to work their way into a company at a position worthy of their skill set, and to work themselves up as they would in the UK.

The biggest issue I have with working in Japan, however, is the working hours. Most workers in Tokyo spend over twelve hours a day, six days a week at work. If you don’t put in those hours, you probably won’t last very long. I imagine it isn’t so bad if you are brought up with it, but it sounds absolutely dreadful to me. I have always been someone who enjoys working on a number of different things at once. At the moment, aside from my computer science degree, I’m learning Japanese, writing a blogging platform in PHP, writing this blog, and reading a book on social psychology on top of the clubs and societies that I take part in for fun. Even if you are getting paid more, working 12 hours a day means you don’t have any time to develop yourself in any other ways, and I would really hate that.
We didn't think that "Detective Opera
Milky Holmes" was likely to be a terribly
classy interpretation of Conan Doyle's classic...
Are there solutions to these problems? Well, the answer is yes, if you look hard enough, and if you work hard enough. Learning the language is mostly just a function of hard work. There’s one other thing that could really help, but I won’t go into detail on that for now. For the problems of being accepted and working reasonable hours, there is a route to go, but the number of openings is incredibly limited. Recently, with the slowly increasing tolerance of the Japanese for foreigners, there have been a few westerners who have set up small companies (often technology companies) over in Japan. Naturally, these companies are willing to hire foreigners, and generally they don’t expect the ridiculous hours that Japanese-owned businesses do. Prospects there may be more limited (if the companies aren’t making much, I can’t expect to be paid much), but it might be an excellent way to establish a foothold in Tokyo, from where I can examine my options more closely.

Why do I want to move to Japan despite these obviously major obstacles? Well, there’s an awful lot that I like over there, for a start. Most of my hobbies and interests come from Japan, and are much more socially acceptable over there. I think there’s also a fairly major element of wanting to do something interesting and have a long-term goal, though. I haven’t yet accepted my fate as being to leave university, go to work, work for someone else for fifty years, and then retire, because it sounds so dreadfully mundane. Going and working in Japan is something that feels more adventurous, and if I manage it, even if I hate it over there and end up coming back, I will have picked up some very useful language skills and will have done something quite special that very few other people do. And from there, I can move on to some other crazy objective.

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