Safety first in Japan

Japanese people are very concerned with safety. One of the first Japanese words I learned after arriving in Japan was anzen (安全 ), the Japanese word for safety.

A well-known example of this concern with safety is the method of ‘pointing and calling‘, shisa kanko (指差喚呼), used by public transport operators in Japan. Japanese train drivers will point at every sign they pass, calling out its status. This looks very funny to Western eyes but it is proven to help keep focus and attention.

Foreign Toyota employees receive similar instructions when they first arrive in Japan. The Toyota headquarters in Japan are so large that they include roads with motorized traffic on them. During their initial orientation, the expat employees are instructed on how to cross the road when they are at headquarters: they have to point to the left, say yoshi (which means something like OK), point to the right, say yoshi again, and only then may they cross. The Europeans, with their disdain for rules, think it is silly and try to skip the yoshi yoshi whenever they can. The Japanese employees, however, diligently follow the safety regulations, much to the astonishment and amusement of the Europeans.

Another example of Japanese concern with safety is this group of school children. They are all wearing helmets, which seem to be part of their school uniform.

Japanese safety anzen

Safety first in Japan: helmets as part of the school uniform.

I guess a country that is frequently affected by natural disasters, such as earthquakes, tsunami, volcanic eruptions and the like, cannot be blamed for an emphasis on safety. But Japan wouldn’t be Japan if there wasn’t also a huge contradiction in this concern with safety.

Imagine my surprise when I found out that many Japanese people watch TV while driving! While the Belgian government campaigns heavily against using the phone while driving, let alone watching television, in Japan it seems to be the most normal thing in the world to watch TV while driving. Many Japanese people have their navi system adjusted to also broadcast TV. While this isn’t exactly legal, as I’ve been told, many people do it.

Japanese people ignoring safety and breaking the rules? Just when you think you have things figured out, Japan throws you a curveball. Or is it allright to break the rules because the car is considered ‘private space’ (related to the honne – tatemae distinction) where you can do what you want? I would love to hear other people’s opinion on this. Please share what you think in the comment section!

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Tiny Japanese iron

Living space in Japan is limited. At first glance, Japan’s population density of 336 people per square kilometer seems deceptively low. In fact, it is lower than that of Belgium, which is 370 people per square kilometer. We should, however, take into account that only roughly 20% of Japan’s surface is fit for human habitation, due to the large amount of mountainous terrain, thus leading to an actual population density that is much higher.

Japanese people therefore tend to live in much smaller houses and apartments than Belgian people do. This limited living space has sparked numerous creative solutions to save on space. One of those is the tiny iron, accompanied by an equally tiny ironing board.

I had already seen an extensive range of small irons when shopping at an electronics store but hadn’t paid much attention to it at the time, since they also had Western sized irons. I was very surprised, however, when during an afternoon of crafting my friend showed me her ironing board. It was so tiny! And it was intended to be used while sitting on the ground, as you can clearly see by the short legs, although it could arguably also be used while sitting at a table.

tiny Japanese iron

Tiny Japanese iron and ironing board

My friend told me that she doesn’t like ironing and who could blame her with such tiny implements. It must take ages to iron one item of clothing. Japanese clothing store Uniqlo has cleverly responded to the ironing conundrum in Japan by developing a range of ‘super non iron’ shirts. This again shows how Japan is all about convenience, which I love. It also illustrates how the Japanese love to use the word super in their branding. To Western ears that sounds a bit funny. It always puts a smile on my face whenever I hear it. Somehow it makes everything sound cute and powerful at the same time.

uniqlo non iron shirt

Uniqlo super non-iron shirt, perfect for people who don’t like to iron!

After writing this article, I found out that non-iron clothes are full of chemicals that are harmful to the environment, so I am no longer a fan of non-iron clothes.

For comparison purposes I will describe a Belgian ironing board. It stands on high legs and is about three times the size of the Japanese ironing board. Belgian irons are larger and often have an external steam generator, which produces more steam and helps to iron more efficiently. With the Belgian setup I actually quite enjoy ironing. For honesty’s sake I do have to mention that there are also many Belgian people who dislike ironing.

large Belgian iron

Belgian ironing setup, with large ironing board and iron with external steam generator

Despite my ravings about the wonders of large ironing boards and external steam generators, I would probably also turn to the tiny Japanese iron if I lived in a Japanese ‘one room mansion’ (ワンルームマンション). A one room mansion, as the name suggests, has only one room of about 10m², with a very small bathroom and cooking area. The one room mansion blocks often look a bit depressing to me, with rows of uniform doors, leading to identical square boxes.

one room mansion

One room mansion in Japan

What is your experience with ironing in Japan?

 

On terraces in Japan, or the lack thereof

The weather in Belgium is beautiful at the moment. The sun is shining and the temperature is finally going over 20°C. Having long, dark winters, Belgians tend to go a little crazy when the weather becomes nice like this. One of the symptoms is the mass migration to pub terraces everywhere, to sit in the sun and enjoy a beer with friends. We even have an expression for it: ‘een terrasje doen’, which literally means ‘to do a little terrace’.

terrace_belgium

Belgian summer habits: sitting outside in the sun, enjoying a beer with friends. A side-effect of this is lots of people with bright red sunburn after exposing their delicate winter skin to the direct sunlight for several hours.

Despite my love for Japan and my efforts to adjust to Japanese culture as much as possible during my stay, my Belgian background stirred itself from time to time. So come March or April of my year in Japan, when the weather in Nagoya started getting really nice after a relatively cold winter, I started to get serious ‘terrace withdrawal’. It was so hard to find a pub terrace in Japan! The Japanese seem to have no inclination whatsoever to sit in the sun with friends to enjoy a drink. In fact, rather the opposite is the case: they try to avoid the sun as much as possible, to protect their skin from UV damage. Another contributing factor may be the hot humid summers in Japan. From the middle of June to roughly the middle of september, outside temperatures can be unbearable and air-conditioned spaces are preferred. But still, spring and autumn are very nice in Japan and would lend themselves perfectly to sitting outside. Might the lack of terraces also be related to the Japanese notion that it isn’t polite to eat or drink when you are walking around? And therefore also not polite when sitting outside? Or is this notion dated and doesn’t apply to Japanese culture anymore? I’m sorry to say I am not very well informed about this point.

I found the lack of outside sitting space in Japan so noticeable, that I took pictures whenever I did find a terrace. You will notice below that I have exactly two pictures. Apart from one terrace in front of a big building in Nagoya, where nobody was sitting, Starbucks seemed to be the only place that offered outside seating. But it looked far from inviting. The cozy Belgian terraces were one of the few things that I really missed from Belgium.

Japanese terrace in Nagoya

A Japanese terrace in Nagoya, that actually looks quite inviting, apart from the fact that nobody is sitting there! Might it be connected to the Tully’s Coffee in the background? I’m sorry to say I did not investigate further due to time constraints at the time.

starbucks terrace in Toyota City, Japan

The Starbucks in Toyota City, located on the walkway between the two train stations in the city. It was one of the few times that I saw the possibility for outside seating in Japan.

starbucks terrace in Toyota City, Japan

Another view of the Starbucks terrace in Toyota City. It doesn’t look very inviting, does it?

I wonder, do other countries also have this terrace culture, or is it specific to Belgium? How did you experience these things in Japan? Please share your stories in the comments!