Our flight to Tokyo left Los Angeles International airport at approximately 12.45 p.m. on Thursday 10th May. We arrived in Narita airport Tokyo at 4.20 p.m the next evening, Friday 11th May, more than a full day later! We literally flew over the renowned “date line” as we crossed the Pacific Ocean between the USA and Japan. The time difference was a total of 16 hours (with a 12 hour flight time) ahead of US Pacific Time! At this stage my poor body was becoming confused with the whole time difference between countries, as it does become quite complex trying to calculate the whole variation of time between each country when you’re travelling across the world. On this journey I have been lucky enough to have nothing but positive experiences in the main, but this is the exception to that. I had never experienced anything as bad as the jet lag and readjustment to the 16 hour time difference as I did when travelling to Tokyo! The only way I can describe it for those who haven’t had the displeasure of such an experience is that when you wake in the morning time, it’s like waking up after a full heavy anesthetic following surgery and the grogginess you feel for a day or so after that? Multiply that by ten and that’s it! Trying to lift my head off the pillow was impossible…I’d wake, try to get up and fall back to sleep immediately, only to repeat the process again an hour later. My body clock was also expecting to be fed at 4 a.m. Japanese time, which of course is lunchtime back in the USA. Eating crackers at 4 a.m. to qualm the hunger pains just enough to get another few hours sleep wasn’t something I had factored into the trip at all!
Of course, stupidly, time differences were never considered when booking the flights. We tended to focus on the logistics of the trip, i.e. accommodation, transport, etc. and not other just as important stuff like jet lag. So remember guys, if you’re planning on travelling outside of the Greenwich Mean Time Zone, you really need to think about the impact time difference is going to have on you in the overall context of the time you will be spending in the country. It took me the best part of 48 hours to feel energized enough to get out and about and explore the wonderful city of Tokyo. Given that we only had 7 days here, it is a substantial deficit in the context of the time we had left to explore a huge city of over 37 million people (just think, over 7 times greater than the population of Ireland in one city alone!). I know there are tips and advice that you can read up on on how to deal with time differences and jet lag. Lesson learned from my perspective. I didn’t, I should have, and I certainly will going forward. (That sounds like something from a political party manifesto!)
The city of Tokyo again, has its own idiosyncrasies which are not comparable to anywhere else we’ve been. What immediately hits you when boarding the trains and subways is the fact that everyone, men and women, are all dressed formally in black, navy or grey suits in the main! Wall to wall suits, briefcases and “man bags”. Yes, every man travelling around the city carries a “man bag” pretty much similar to the larger ones that us women carry around. Pristine white shirts with cuff linked sleeves, designer cut suits finished off with shiny black shoes. And the women are pretty much the same. Designer suits and bags… all looking like something from a business catalogue. Not one track suit bottom or a pair of runners to be seen. It’s unreal!
You see, the Japanese work culture is very different to anywhere else really. Work is the priority … for almost everyone!. Leisure is not something that features at the top of the priority list and this is evident with the lack of leisure facilities (other than high end shops and restaurants) in the city, and elsewhere in Japan I am told. The Japanese are workaholics for sure. In a recent article from a magazine about working in Japan, an American lady offering advice to anyone considering working here wrote “In Japan it’s very normal to work late into the wee hours, no matter the industry. Employees often work 14 hour days, with one Japanese man confessing that he put in over 100 hours of overtime into his job—each month. In the rare auld times (the flourishing era of the 80’s and 90s) this overtime was actually paid, but now they just call it ‘service zangyou,’ or unpaid overtime. Basically, employees clock out at 5 p.m., but stay until midnight because it’s bad etiquette to leave before your superior. They stay to keep the ‘wa,’ or harmony of the office. Japan is a very collective society, so they like to stick together and work as a team. Leaving before your superior, or even your senpai (seniors aka people that worked there longer/are older than you), is awkward. I mean, if Tanaka-san leaves at 5 pm everyday but everyone else works until 10, then Tanaka-san is, essentially, a selfish bastard and doesn’t care about his fellow man. Screw Tanaka-san. The only one who can get away with leaving early is the foreign English teacher, because s/he’s not a “real” member of the team—but that’s a story for another day.
Plus, Japan isn’t merit based so even if you work hard and produce results you won’t be rewarded. Raises and promotions only happen through hierarchy and commitment to the company—in other words, you’ll get a real raise after you work there for 10-20 years. This is why Japanese employees seldom switch companies and often spend their entire life working at the same organization”. Public Service Ireland how are ya ha ha. Another interesting fact about working in a company in Japan is that where I have experience of extremely efficient work meetings where agendas are clearly set and a dedicated time given to a meeting (except when I go on talking forever as one of my wonderful work colleagues reminds me after every meeting, in a hysterical falling around the floor laughing kind of way might I add, which is quite funny), in Japan a meeting can go on for hours and hours and they set out to reach an absolute consensus before they can wrap up each meeting. In Japan, consensus is more important for Japanese management than reaching certain conclusions.
On a more serious note however, as a result of this work culture, the suicide rate amongst young men in Japan is quite high. According to statistics, the leading cause of death of males between the ages of 22 and 44 is as a result of suicide. While some reasons are cited as causes for this, e.g. divorce, money problems etc., many of the deaths are as a result of fatigue from working long hours (locally called Karoshi) or where men (and women) are made redundant from a company that they have worked with for years. In recent years the Government in Japan has conducted some pretty high profile studies and drawn up a White Paper to address the growing suicide problem. It has also invested in research to examine causes and invested money into suicide prevention programmes in an effort to reverse the growing numbers of men taking their lives. Separately, women between the ages of 15-34 also have a high suicide rate. Japan is very much a “Patriarchal” society where women’s rights and laws around domestic violence etc. have a lot of catching up to do with the rest of the world. While the will is there to progress these rights, it will be many years apparently before we see real progress for women here. I make this comparison to the likes of how women are treated in Iceland where we started out on our journey. There is no comparison between the equal treatment and protection of women in Iceland and the situation in Japan. Albeit the same could be said of Ireland given the current roaring debate in Ireland on the Repealing of the 8th Amendment – many people around the world that I have spoken to on this issue find it hard to believe that a woman does not have a choice on the issue of abortion in Ireland! – A debate for another day.
To get a full real life feel of how big the work culture is in Japan, you just need to stand at the subway station overlooking the famous pedestrian intersection at the Shibuya crossing in Tokyo on any given day. The sight is eerie as the traffic lights change and pedestrians spill out in an outstanding orderly fashion, like thousands of ants scrambling to cross the various roads at the intersection to get to the other side. And no-one bumps into any another person as they cross, like clockwork, almost robotic like! It’s a sight to behold and to me, totally depicts the orderliness of Japanese society.
Another thing that hit me travelling around Tokyo, was the silence at peak hours on the trains and subways. It is totally strange by any standards. No one speaks on their mobile phones. Earphones are worn by everyone if they’re looking at music or videos on their phones. A respectful silence for every person is maintained throughout hours of travel on these trains and subways. The noise is absolutely minimal, save a child might board the train with parents. But even then if the child speaks they are shushed to be quiet to ensure that everyone on board has a calm and uninterrupted travel experience. And the underground subway system is the main means of travel around Tokyo. It’s complex in the extreme and involves a lot of changing of trains when travelling from A to B. If you are planning on a trip to Tokyo or Japan it would be wise to do a bit of research on the whole subway system before arriving here cold. In fact, i believe that part of the school curriculum for kids back home should be figuring out the multitude of public transport systems around the main cities in the world. It makes sense! On the plus side, the trains are so so efficient. Longest waiting time would be in the region of one to two minutes max. Efficiency at it’s best and ten out of ten for public transport on this stint!
As a race, these people are extremely respectful to one another. At the end of every conversation with a Japanese person, before leaving your company, they bow their head with hands in prayer to say thank you and goodbye. Even the ticket collectors and train attendants on the train bow to the people sitting in the carriages as they go from carriage to carriage. I felt very lucky to have witnessed the wonderful kindness, respect and dignity that these people conduct themselves with towards one another. The Japanese culture prioritizes the needs of society above the needs of oneself. Children are reared to respect this position, in that the needs of the wider group of society must take top priority. And while this teamwork mindset is good in the context of successful business and the economy, my thinking is that an individual may neglect their own needs at the behest of a society that demands so much from them. And here again, the suicide rate bears testament to this I believe.
The crime rate in Japan is practically non-existent and the joke about the police force is that they make up crimes to justify their existence! In fact, the whole of the Japanese society could exist without a police force of any great significance if truth be known.
While we were hopping from subway to subway exploring, we came across Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist Temple, Senso-Ji in the centre of Tokyo and were pleasantly surprised to see many beautiful Japanese women dressed in the traditional Kimono. Women have to attend special classes to learn how to put on these wonderfully colourful kimonos such is the complexity of wearing such beautiful silk garments. While the practice of wearing these kimonos is now pretty much restricted to official occasions, we did see women of the older generation wearing them as they walked around Tokyo. I was tempted to purchase one, but I’d have to throw out half of the clothes I’ve brought in order to fit it into my luggage. Not an option this time around I’m afraid.
Another amazing experience was hopping on the famous “bullet train”! I had read an article before arriving in Japan about a driver of one of these trains making a public apology for departing 20 seconds EARLIER than scheduled. I was counting the seconds to departure time as we sat waiting, and I’m not telling a word of a lie! Bang on the dot the train sped out of the station, picking up huge speed within minutes. Think Star Trek, and that’s the feeling when you board this amazing piece of engineering! What an experience and a must for visiting this wonderful city.
Finally, on one of the last days there, we found a good old “Irish Pub” as you do when you’re abroad. We were ecstatic! Visions of the good old Irish Breakfast were rolling around in our heads…a few Irish accents if we were lucky, and a bit of craic surely to gawwd! And we climbed the stairs to the establishment in scorching heat …in heightened anticipation. We opened the door, waiting for waft of bacon and eggs to float up our nostrils…. Only to be greeted by a roomful of Japanese men and women eating Japanese food (not that this was a bad thing, but when we were expecting our local Irish fare…well ya get the picture ). We dragged our tongues along the floor to a table and ordered Japanese curry with rice and a sparkling water. We secretly wanted to grab the poor Japanese guy behind the bar by the neck and shout “what’s the meaning of this? Phonies…the whole bloody lotta ya!…Where’s the Irish guy?” All Irish posters, Guinness signs, Paddy’s Day paraphernalia piled up around us as we sat there…sulking at the most un-Irish Irish pub we had ever been in 😜. And we left, not in the least bit amused, and even worse, having no-one who could speak our language who would lend us an ear for our whining and moaning…I hate dah!
So now, we’ve left Japan, (after a week of re-adjusting) and are settling into the city that stole my heart away almost 5 years ago when I came to visit my daughter Alison who had been living and working here for many years. Beijing, China. One of the reasons for this trip around Asia was so that I could come back to this beautiful place again, to travel around this uniquely beautiful old old city and country. We will be staying here (and travelling around China) for the next month and boy am I excited and so looking forward to sharing this part of my journey with you all x
Next on the Menu is a trip to the Chinese