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Saturday, July 1, 2006


A mite louder than mice: city gaijin vs. country gaijin

OK, so it's not the greatest conflict of all time. It's not Pepsi vs. Coke, Tom vs. Jerry or even Freddy vs. Jason. Plus it's not Japan-specific. The following swords of debate can be crossed in any nation at any time by anyone.

Yet for foreign residents hard pressed for peace of mind in a land that doesn't always embrace them, perhaps the dueling blades here shine brighter than anywhere else. This then is our question:

Which is the better place for "gaijin" residents to reside? In one of Japan's never-ending cities? Or out somewhere amidst the plains and mountains of the Japanese countryside?

"Hah!" says Gaijin A. "If I had to choose 'city,' I wouldn't live here. Just visiting makes me ill. Commuters wriggling into trains like worms. Shoppers crawling over each other like ants. Pedestrians bumping you left and right like worker bees. City life in Japan is not life. It's existence. Insect existence, too."

"Yeah," says Gaijin B, "and now I suppose you will raise your lyre and pluck away at the bucolic glory of the hinterland. You got fresh air. You got stars at night. You got . . . what else? Real bugs? Well, here's what you don't got: stores, theaters, restaurants, services and friends. That's why you risk throwing up to come visit the city, isn't it? 'Cause here you can actually do something! You can stay out at night and have some fun! You can really live for a change!"

Gaijin A wrinkles his nose. "We got stores. We got restaurants. We got fun."

"Right. What you got are a noodle shop and a Lawson's. Both of which are 10 minutes away by car. Which is OK, 'cause the video shop is only five minutes beyond, and you're there every single night. For what else is there to do?"

"How would you know?" says A, his face red and his video card sizzling in his wallet. "You've never set foot on anything other than concrete. Out here we have rivers, trees, mountains. What do you have other than neon and auto exhaust? I'd tell you to go soak your head in an onsen, but you don't have one, do you?"

"Sure we do. Tokyo's loaded with onsens."

"At Tokyo prices. With Tokyo crowds. Onsens as natural as the skyscrapers that surround them. Ha!"

"But they're here. Everything's here."

"Yes, and you pay for it, too. Meanwhile, I don't have to take out a loan to buy a watermelon."

Gaijin B, a watermelon lover, winces. But jabs back.

"Which you cannot find out of season, unlike in the city. You can't find Indian food either. Or Mexican. Or Vietnamese. Or . . . got a world map? I could go on."

Yet now he has played into Gaijin A's hands. Or so Gaijin A thinks.

"Let me tell you what YOU don't got -- the real Japan. Instead you've got some hybrid culture that masquerades in its place. If you want the real Japan, the one with real Japanese virtues, then you've got to move to the country."

"You mean real Japanese virtues like xenophobia?"

"No, I mean the virtues of honest, hardworking people whose lives don't run on time clocks. People who actually stop and talk to you."

"In a dialect that not even they can understand."

"I mean people who actually care!"

"Did you say, 'people who actually STARE'? Doesn't it get old being gawked at all the time as the only foreigner some people have ever seen? Or does it make you feel like some sort of celebrity?"

Gaijin A bites a smile, like a game show host with a dumb contestant. "No, it makes me feel like a genuine person. Here I am not just a foreigner, like the flood of gaijin faces in the city. I'm part of a community where I am known. It's safe, too. Neighbors in the country look out for each other. Crime is an urban phenomenon, one we in the heartland only read about."

"So why do you look out for each other?" asks B. "Oh, I forgot -- bears. Not to mention landslides. But it must be comforting to know you have expert help only an hour away . . . by helicopter."

They breathe deep and then parry and thrust one final time.

"The country is not the 'lost world,' " says A. "The old ways lend it depth the city can never have. I may have to drive a bit farther to reach a restaurant or an event, but the roads are always open, and that sure beats the inch-a-minute traffic of Tokyo, or the hordes on the trains. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is only as far away as the Internet. I can see the latest news and shop with the tap of a keyboard, just like you. Only I own a genuine piece of land, not a coffin-size condo."

"You left out job selection," says B. "Because you don't have any. You lose your job and you lose your way of life."

"You're just jealous. You'd live here too, if you had the nerve. But you're afraid that if you leave the city -- where you have everything -- you couldn't survive."

"That's right!" grins Gaijin B. "I do have everything! And more! For just like you escape to the city, I can roll to the country any time I want. Any time, that is, I want to see bears!"

"Yet you prefer to stay home with your remote control glued to your palm. City boy."

"Country hick."

The debate will rumble on, but can reach no conclusion. Yet there can be a concluding question.

In the sea of urban sprawl, just how does one tell where city life stops and country life begins?

Might it be possible to reap the best of both worlds?

Or is it more likely -- with usual gaijin luck -- to end up stuck with the worst?

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com

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