industrious ants

All about a life in motion.

Month: June, 2011

Thoughts on Aging

I like to think of Japan as having 6 seasons; spring, rainy, summer, typhoon, autumn and winter. Of them all, rainy season is my absolute least favorite. The laundry never dries and the floor and tatami in the house always feels damp. A never-ending battle ensues between me and the mold. The stuff seems to grow faster than I can scrub it away. And let’s not forget all the tropical insects that emerge from their winter slumber looking like they’ve been on some sort of intensive steroid program. The laws of nature should include a clause that states no insect be allowed to grow bigger than a human hand.

Seriously though, the worst part of rainy season isn’t really the rain and the constant need to be totting an umbrella around, and it’s not even having to wear the ridiculous full bodied rain suits that make everyone here look like space men. The hardest part is the absence of the sun. Rainy season started suddenly about 2 weeks ago, hitting full force. One day it was gorgeous, and the next day it poured, and it continued to do that for a solid week straight. By day seven I thought I was going crazy. I felt depressed and edgy and found myself cursing the skies every time I needed to go out and run a simple errand. Insanely, I started reminiscing about how great winter in Canada was compared to this, thinking how wonderful a couple feet of snow would be right now, if only the sun would just come out. Obviously, I was on the brink of madness.

And then, after what seemed like an eternity of torture, it just stopped. And it didn’t just stop for one day. It was almost a solid week of sunshine and perfect weather, skirts and flip-flops and afternoon strolls. It was heaven. On one of these glorious days, my friend Maiko came over and we put our two minds together and made one perfect peach cobbler. Truly, it’s the easiest thing to make in the world, consisting only of canned peaches, butter, flour, and little else. Still, proud of our small accomplishment we sat out on the steps of my small balcony taking in the clear skies and celebrating the not-rain, when an elderly man on his afternoon walk approached us and started up a conversation.

It’s pretty common to see older people out on their walks in my neighborhood and it seems to be a favorite pastime of retired people in our town. What’s amazing is how devoted they are to it. It’s not like they just suddenly decide to take a stroll one afternoon, and the next day they sit at home petting their cat. It’s a routine that they stick to, day in and out. Like clockwork, I daily see the same individuals cruising through my neighborhood, walking at a firm pace and swinging their arms with purpose. One man i’ve befriended takes his walk twice a day. He often likes to stop and chat with me while I am out tending to my small potted garden. I can never really understand what he is saying, or what most Japanese people over 60 years of age are talking about, because they speak in an older, local form of the language that even my native speaking colleagues have a hard time catching. Still, somehow we understand each others feelings and communicate in other ways. He’ll shake his head and furrow his brow regretfully at my yellowing tomato plant, and I’ll nod in agreement and sigh deeply over my complete lack of gardening expertise.

On this particular day, I didn’t recognize the gentleman that approached us, but part way through the conversation he made it clear that he was familiar with us. It’s not all that surprising really. Everyone within a five block radius ‘knows’ us…maybe not by name, but a tall white man totting around a surf board on his bicycle is pretty hard to miss, and so is an overly pregnant Indian woman. He was finely dressed in slacks that looked almost new, but by the cut and material, they were probably at least half my age. He also sported a classy gray fedora. Looking at him was like looking back in time. I could catch some of his Japanese, but he spoke quickly and mumbled some of his words, so Maiko needed to do most of the translating. I asked him about his walking. 10,000 steps, he said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his small electronic pedometer. 10,000 steps, or roughly about 5 km every day. Really, I felt like it was nothing short of amazing. Lately, I don’t think I take as many steps in a week. He in turn asked how long I’d lived in Japan and how long I thought I would stay. I told him, and he went on to tell us that he had lived abroad once, building dams in Vietnam just before the war broke out. He had thought it was a dirty place, but he’d loved it. Just when he was getting comfortable, he was forced to leave. He imagined that it would be the same for us when it was our time to go too.

Silently through all this, I was calculating in my mind how old he was without directly asking. If he was in Vietnam just before the Americans got involved, then he could be no younger than 80 years old, but possibly even older. Still, here he was, out on his daily stroll, looking spry as ever and talking quite sharply about his days as an overseas laborer back in the mid 50’s.

After a few more polite exchanges the man was on his way, working up to his daily 10,000 steps. It was a short conversation, but one that left an impression on me. You don’t have to look very far to realize that Japan is a place where you are literally surrounded on all sides by senior citizens. The elderly are everywhere and they are obvious, not because they are sick or decrepit, but for reasons completely opposite. In comparison to seniors back home in Canada, they really don’t act their age. I’ve looked on, amazed, as ancient women, hunched from years of bowing and picking rice, jog by me with their walkers. Frail looking men cycle the streets like they own them. Hobby clubs made up mostly of retirees and housewives meet weekly without fail to learn English, or photography or foreign cooking techniques. They are out grocery shopping, doing laundry, farming, taking the bus, working part time jobs and even driving scooters. On top of all this, they are a sharp, lucid bunch, with many amazing stories to tell, if only you have the Japanese (and local dialect) to understand them.

Although retirement homes are beginning to make their appearance, I have a feeling the Japanese consider them a last resort option, and possibly even shameful, especially if they are capable enough to care for their elderly family. I have an exercise at school where the students list the immediate members of their family, and without any sort of direction they more often than not include their grandparents. Rightfully so. If they don’t reside under the same roof, chances are they live just next door, down the street or within a short driving distance, and likely spend a lot of time together. This is just one of many distinct difference I’ve noticed between Japan and North America. The elderly here are not as easily institutionalized as in the west. There is an unspoken obligation children have to their parents that seems universally understood by the Japanese. At least one child, usually the eldest son, is designated as the primary care giver at some point in time. This means that if they are an only child, and have dreams of living abroad, or of taking a great job offer on the other side of the country, they may have to forfeit their own wants to live closer to their family and personally ensure the livelihood of their parents. Aside from a healthy diet and exercise, a strong family presence probably contributes to the long life and positive attitude of Japanese senior citizens that I so often observe in our town.

The Japanese always leave me a little awestruck. Just like when the Tsunami hit, the resilience and determination of the surviving communities to move forward and rebuild continues to be inspiring. Of course, I don’t believe that character trait is a localized one. It seems built into the hearts and minds of the entire nation. Even here, in our sleepy little neighborhood, there are examples of that die-hard mentality manifesting in smaller but equally telling actions; the 70 year old barber that fixes the tiles on his shops roof; the retired grandmothers that continue to plant and harvest vegetables by the river and run their own private veggie stand in the market; the man who sports a classy fedora and pockets 10,000 steps a day. There is grace and purposefulness in their existence. They are visually present, mentally sound and actively contributing to society. It is a refreshing revelation that makes my own unstoppable aging process a little more hopeful and a little less terrifying.

June 15, 2011


Costs of Living

Get more than you bargained for.


I love getting mail, but I’m not such a big fan of getting bills, and it’s been that kind of week where the only love letters I’ve been receiving are from the Government of Japan. Unfortunately, our relationship feels one way and I’m never in the mood to reciprocate. He’s such a gold digger.

Coming from Canada, you’d think I’d be used to paying into the system, but to tell you the truth, I never really felt it that hard back home. My salary always fell into a low tax bracket, and it was just a fact of life that sales taxes ran as high as 15%. In Japan, sales tax is actually quite low, at about 5%, and often times you don’t notice it because it’s usually worked into the price tag. If it is listed as 100 yen, then you just end up paying 100 yen. Taxes taken out of my paycheck don’t bother me all that much either. As a couple, Matt and I have really benefited from the health care system here, and with a baby on the way, it looks like we’ll continue to be patronizing the government’s health services quite regularly. Pension is withdrawn monthly and will apparently be partially refunded when we finally leave the country. I also learned this week that portions of my income are withdrawn for ‘inhabitants tax’, which is just a fancy word for State/Local taxes, so I suppose it’s a fair deduction.

I can accept things like sales and income tax. What is harder to swallow are the smaller financial monsters that rear their ugly heads every now and then, and which often seem ridiculous. They are like ants, where one wouldn’t be so bothersome, but the little buggers come in colonies and they work together to make your kitchen a living hell. The first of these pests that I experienced was the cost associated with owning a television set. Upon first arriving in Japan, my apartment had little in it, save a few items donated to me by the teaching staff at my school. I inherited a rice cooker, mini fridge, fan and television set. Those first few nights in the apartment alone, with practically no furniture, and no company, would have felt all the more empty if I didn’t have the Japanese Shopping Channel to fill the void. It was the only channel out of 2 that I could really understand. The other was the local NHK news station, which I found incomprehensible because of their lack of stimulating visuals. I’ve never seen a cameraman focus so intently on random things like rocks, pieces of glass or flowers before. Without any background on what I was watching, it felt like I was screening a 10th graders silent video documentary on cats. At least I could relate to the Shopping Channel, and I found the show-case women who described all the items up for sale to be hilarious. It didn’t matter what they were selling, be it pashmina shawls or instant curry, they always sounded like they were on the verge of utter ecstasy.

After about a week or so of cashmere, black pearls and orgasmic product descriptions, I lost interest and stopped watching television altogether. Shortly after that I got a knock at the door. A man wearing a very official NHK/Japanese Broadcasting Corporation badge stood there with his clipboard, and of course, looked a little shocked to see a foreigner. He tried in broken English to explain his purpose, but it wasn’t working, so he handed me an application form written in Japanese and took off. The next day I showed it to my supervisor, and she let me know that he was likely there collecting the yearly fee for watching NHK. Well, what if I didn’t watch NHK, or any television at all. It wouldn’t matter. As the owner of a Japanese television set, technically I was supposed to pay up every year, regardless of what channels I was or wasn’t tuning in to.

The only way to get rid of Mr. NHK and his yearly fee was to get rid of the television, but in Japan, because a television is an electrical appliance, you just can’t throw it away. Parts of it would have to be extracted and disposed of properly. If I took it down to the recycle center, I would likely have to dish out 50$ to have them take it off my hands. A cheaper alternative would be to give it to a local electrician, who would benefit from stripping it for parts, but would also ask for a small disposal fee. A final unthinkable option would be to drive to the beach and dump it in the bushes, which is what a few other local residents seem to have done, at least as is evident by the carcasses of old rusting refrigerators and radios that I come across when I accompany Matt to his favorite surf spots. After 2 years of hiding in the depths of our closet, I’m pretty close to giving the set to the guy that drives around my neighborhood taking electronics from people for a small price. Still it seems sort of ridiculous to have to pay someone to take away the television I never bought or wanted in the first place.

The above incident was my first introduction to the concept of ‘Paying For Nothing’, a phenomenon not entirely unique to Japan, but one that the country seems to have perfected. I paid nothing for it, but somehow I still got stuck with a bill. This whole experience repeated itself on a grander scale recently when a lawyer friend recently offered us a free car. He was representing a couple in the middle of a nasty divorce. Their teenage daughter had a car that neither of them wanted to claim ownership over, and in the end it fell on their lawyer to manage the disposal of it. He said if we wanted it, it was ours free of charge, we would only have to pay the car tax and shaken. At the time we thought ‘Sweet Deal!’, but that’s because we were pretty naïve about what either of those things really meant.

Car Tax is a fee that all car owners pay every year. The amount varies on the size of the cars engine and for what purpose the car is used. If you are commuting to work every day, your car tax will probably be higher than if it’s just a leisure vehicle that you use on weekends. I have no idea what the tax money is used for. I assume it is to upkeep the roads, but then you have to ask yourself where all the money collected from the toll roads goes to? In any case, our car tax is about $360 a year. Then there is the Shaken, which is an automobile inspection that the car must perform every two years for as long as you own it. The inspection is supposed to ensure that all vehicles tested are road worthy and safe to drive. The idea is nice, but in practice it’s a joke. Our shaken ended up costing us close to $2000. This price included some minor maintenance on the car that the dealer said was necessary for the vehicle to pass inspection, but when Matt and I looked over the bill, most of it was stuff we knew we could have done ourselves for much cheaper, like changing the oil or the wiper blades.

In actually fact, the bulk of the cost, about $1100, went towards the actual inspection. This was also the dealer’s price of course. We found out later that you could actually do the inspection yourself for about half the cost. Surprisingly, most Japanese people don’t go this route because they are afraid that it is too technical or difficult, and it is best to leave it up to the professionals to handle everything for them. It seems like the concept of dishonest car salesmen and mechanics hasn’t quite arrived in Japan just yet. When I asked around to my colleagues what exactly gets tested, most didn’t know. They just trusted that it was worth the price they paid every 2 years and unquestioningly forked over the cash.

Some quick online research convinced me that all this was utter poppycock. In the following video, a foreign guy takes his car through the inspection process with ease:

Never once does anyone check the fluids. Emissions are tested, as are headlight and wheel alignment. If your car isn’t a clunker, it looks to me like taking it through the inspection yourself shouldn’t be too difficult. What I find laughable about the whole thing is that shaken is essentially supposed to be a ‘safety’ inspection, to ensure that your car is safe to put on the road. Never once are the seat belts or airbags checked. In fact, a friend of mine owns a 12+ year old minivan that has no belts in the rear passenger seats, and it passed the inspection with no issues.

Here are two other resources that attest to the ease of doing the shaken on your own, and saving yourself a lot of money.

However, the issue here is not the money you can save doing the inspection yourself, it’s the price of owning a car in Japan at all. You can purchase it, keep it gassed up and make all your insurance payments, but legally you can’t drive your car unless you pay your car tax every year, and do your inspection every two years. At the rate we are going, our free car could cost us up to 2500$ every 2 years, for as long as we own it. If we decide finally that we don’t want the car, it might be hard to sell because it’s over 10 years old, and in Japan, if it’s not the newest or latest model, many people won’t want to go near it. In this case, we would of course have to pay someone to cart the thing away. This could cost up to $500. Factor in the high gas prices, parking fees and insurance, and it leaves me wondering if owning a car is even worth it. We were pretty happy shooting around town on our bikes and taking the train when we needed to go further than we could peddle. Getting pregnant pushed us towards becoming car owners in Japan. Obviously, the added convenience will likely feel worth it once the baby arrives, but we have resolved to assess our feelings about the car in a year’s time. Certainly at this point, neither of us has a problem with going back to cycling and pocketing the savings.

In light of all this, we have become very cautious about what we furnish our lives with. Be it a television or a car, the cost of ownership in Japan can go beyond what one expects to pay. Maybe the extra costs are the government’s way of trying to make responsible consumers of us all…but in my opinion, the fees don’t seem to hold people back from over-consumption. If anything, Japan is even more of a consumer society than North America, and people pay these crazy fees with very little resilience or question as to where the money is going or what it is being used for. Some colleagues even tell me that they think car tax and shaken are a total government scam, but as much as they disagree with it, there is no real resistance from the people and everyone just keeps paying up.

If there is any benefit from paying more for luxury goods, it’s realizing that living without those things can not only be cost effective, but it is also quite pleasurable. Less can mean more; more time with friends and family; more exercise; more money in the bank. At some point we will have to leave the country, and it will probably be in much the same way we arrived. I expect that we will pack a few suitcases of necessary and sentimental belongings, and leave all the rest behind. I would hate to be a person that laments over abandoned stuff. At least I can safely say that the car and television won’t be on my miss-list.

June 6, 2011