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Rediscovering Tokyo, 30 years later…

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Expatriation in Tokyo

After two stays in 1987 and 1990, I am back to Japan for leisure. I discovered one of the most Northern isand of the country, Okinawa, meeting point of Japanese families during the Equinox break. The planes were overbooked, the resorts overcrowded. Like anywhere in Japan, manners, attention to details like arranging the plates, the flowers, and on the other hand a disorder of houses, and buildings with electric wires on the facades. I thought the island would be tropical and isolated, I found it populous, urbanized and domesticated.

I was then wondering how could be Tokyo now, compared to my 30 years old memories. I arrived in the late afternoon, had a first walkabout in the metro. My first surprise was the size and the weight of the inhabitants: I found them taller (I was stuck like in the Parisian metro, just seeing shoulders and hair) and probably fatter, noticing several overweight youngsters.  I felt nevertheless less “lost in translation”: the many signs in English make orientation easier for a Westerner.

Ginza remains the temple of luxury consumption, new trendy areas emerged, like Shibuya, the well known place where young Japanese party. More traditional places were rehabilitated, with their temples and wooden houses in Yanaka (North of Ueno).

Respecting the rules and processes seem to frame the social life in Tokyo, as it used to do before.  I read in Ueno the sentence for Cherry Blossom: « obey the rules and enjoy cherry blossom viewing ». Rules must be respected, and this is a positive point for a Parisian visiting Tokyo. The streets are spotless, bikes don’t have to be locked, and queues are well organized. On the other hand, one can be called to order if not respecting zebra crossings! It is difficult to forget the process and the rule: all museums and galleries are closed the day after a holiday, no exception!

I met expatriates; they express their attraction, mixed with discomfort, when they face these ubiquitous rules: it is a pleasure to walk safely in Tokyo, to see a passerby rushing to you and bringing you back the gloves or the bag you forgot in the tube, to leave your shopping bag unattended if you need to buy another item. Nevertheless, expats found it difficult to “obey the rule”, especially when they just don’t know them, when they ignore implicit codes, what they should do or not. French working with Japanese find particularly complicated the cultural shock as well as this way of working where respecting the rule and the boss come first.  

After a stay in Osaka- that looks provincial compared to the turmoil of Tokyo-, my last surprise was the visit of Kyoto. I saw young and less young Japanese wearing a traditional kimono, boys as well as girls. They were so many that I asked if this was a specific day; actually, Japanese are increasingly renting traditional clothes when they walk with a group of friends dressed up like in the XIXth century for a day, when they spend the day visiting the city and take pics in front of temples, cherry trees, or in the ancient streets. At the end of the day, they change clothes and take the train back home. This revival of traditions and ancient customs was probably one of the biggest surprises of my trip.

In the end, Japan remains a country attached to traditions, with the firm will of preserving customs. Even though Japanese are more open to speaking English, communication is still difficult. This is why we recommend a cultural training, learning Japanese, and thinking thoroughly to the non-working partner’s project if you plan to work in Japan. Working in Japan is not easy due to the cultural and language gap. The visa of the non-working partner is also often an obstacle to a full-time job.

Danielle Deffontaines

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Marielle was very helpful and patient and I do not think I could have got anywhere to whe

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