Homelessness in Japan

One striking thing about living in Japan, compared to everywhere else I’ve lived, is that it’s very rare to see homeless people. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, of course, and I’m interested in knowing more about the social attitudes about homelessness, and the economic, gendered, and ethnic factors that contribute to the problem.

This article from a couple of years ago discusses the history of a slum district (doya-gai) not far from where I live. It seems that homelessness has decreased significantly since 2002 with new legislation that supports people in finding housing and jobs, as well as welfare benefits. Perhaps there are lessons there for other countries. Since Japan is an aging society, though, the future of the welfare state is somewhat uncertain.

Anyway, the article is worth a read.

Gill, Tom. (2014). Skid Row, Yokohama: Homelessness and Welfare in Japan. From http://www.nippon.com/en/column/g00232/


For a long time now, I’ve wanted to take a picture of the exceedingly cool clothes worn by construction workers and other tradespeople. (Or rather, tradesmen in Japan—almost never women.)

I don’t like taking photos of random people on the street, but fortunately I came across a short article and photo gallery featuring nikkapokka (usually called nikka), described thusly:

Billowing outward below the knee, they taper sharply at the ankles. The pants are an adaptation of the knickerbockers worn by early Dutch settlers in New York, which later became fashionable as sportswear.

The photos also show jikatabi, which are split-toe shoes with rubber soles. Have a look!

Sun and rain protection

Japanese women are very much into sun avoidance, and as the weather heats up, the latest in protective and cooling accessories dominates the shops. The merchandise below, spotted in Loft (the department store Sogo’s best shop), shows the array of possibilities.

Out of necessity, I’m also a fan of sun protection, and whenever I’m out in the sun for a long time, I wear long sleeves, including UV protection shirts, a straw hat, big sunglasses, and often a parasol. (The latter are pretty typical here, so I can use one without looking ridiculous.) But I haven’t yet tried a veil…maybe I should so that I don’t stick out as a foreigner for once!

(Click to enlarge)

June is the rainy season, so the rain gear is also making an appearance.

No guitars in the toilet

As a rule, I don’t take toilet photos, but this sign is too amazing to pass up. (Found in a public washroom in a sort of health/beauty services wing of the Yokohama station Sky Building.)

The top says, “obey the rules and pass the baton to the next person”.

Some notes on manners

Gratuitous armor photo

On the Japan Info blog/website, I came across a list of “7 Daily Habits Considered Rude Elsewhere, But are Perfectly OK in Japan.” Yes, I’m susceptible to clickbait, but it’s still an interesting list.

The seven things are:

Not tipping

Nope, not done here; this is good

Being indirect

“hiding” the meaning of what you really mean to say by minimizing complaints or overstating compliments.

Interrupting when someone else is speaking

In other words, Japanese conversations have more feedback—saying things like “I see,” “really,” “uh huh” more frequently than in English, for example.

Not holding doors open for other people

Not sure, see comments below.

Making noise when eating

Must slurp the noodles!

Pushing people when getting in or off the train


Shouting for service in a restaurant

I’m not sure about all restaurants, but definitely in pub-style restaurants, just yell “sumimasen” to get the server’s attention.

As previously discussed, I would also add “smoking permitted indoors especially restaurants”, which is among the very worst and rudest things about Japan in my opinion.

But anyway, on the topic of #4, I haven’t really noticed whether people tend to hold open doors generally or not, but definitely people do hold open elevator doors. This is a very minor thing, but it’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine. The gym I go to is on the 6th floor of a building, and you have to use the elevator to get there. Without fail, the person in the elevator closest to the door holds down the “open” button and allows others to exit first. This is great when, for example, the elevator is really crowded or there’s a baby stroller or elderly person with a shopping trolley. But if there are only, say, 3 people in the elevator, it’s really annoying! People tend to make a big show saying どうぞ (douzo) “go ahead”, “no, after you” “please, you first” etc. etc. … and then no one ends up getting out of the elevator before more people start getting in. I’m usually the one who appears very rude by being the first out of the elevator, but I’m willing to make that sacrifice so that we don’t have to be trapped in the elevator forever. (And, I now make a point to hold the door open whenever I’m closest to the button, just so I’m not rude all the time.)


Let’s talk about kanji

Back in January, I started studying Japanese more seriously, going to a language school for 3 and a half hours every weekday. My first goal is to improve my speaking skills, but the classes focus more on grammar, vocabulary, and reading—which makes sense given that most students aim to go on to further studies (trade school or university) in Japan and therefore they need to take lots of exams. I actually really like studying grammar and have been inspired to think about becoming a translator (someday…).

One very daunting challenge for any Japanese language learner is reading and writing, which explains why I’m studying during any free moment rather than writing on this blog!

Japanese has two phonetic alphabets, hiragana and katakana, which are not too difficult to learn, although I’m still pretty slow at reading katakana (which is mainly used to write words of foreign origin). And, there is kanji (Chinese characters).

To compare:

“Japanese language” (Nihongo)
Hiragana: にほんご
Katakana: ニホンゴ (this would never be written in katakana, but just for the sake of comparison)
Kanji: 日本語

So my goal in this post is to explain why I agonize so much about learning kanji.

To “learn” a character, you have to memorize:

  • How to write it: the strokes go in a particular order. You also have to know how many strokes there are if you want to look it up in a print dictionary!
  • The readings. Most kanji can be pronounced in at least two different ways, although often there are three or four or more.
  • The meaning. Sometimes a single character has a meaning, although sometimes they only represent a pronunciation in a particular context.
  • Combinations. Beyond the basic kanji, you can’t really learn the characters on their own. You have to learn them in combination with other kanji to make words.

So here is an example.

水 = water みず (mizu)

水着 = bathing suit みずぎ (mizugi), with the second kanji meaning “wear”

So far so good. Then:

水曜日 = Wednesday すいようび (suiyoubi)

水準 = level, standard すいじゅん (suijyun)

水泳 = swimming すいえい (suiei). Yes, the ei part 泳 looks very similar to 水!

Then 泳

泳ぐ = to swim およぐ (oyogu)

Then another similar (but different!) kanji 永, also ei but a different meaning:

永続 = permanence, continuation えいぞく (eizoku)

Another famous example is:


“Sangatsu tsuitachi wa nichiyoubi de shukujitsu, hare no hi deshita,” which translates into “March 1 was Sunday, a holiday, and a sunny day.”

The character 日 (day) is pronounced: tachi, nichi, bi, jitsu, and hi in that sentence. There’s no way of knowing which reading to use other than by memorization.

There are 2,136 “regular use” kanji that a person with basic literacy should know, and I’ve studied about 500 so far, although I don’t know all of the readings of those. But again, “knowing” involves knowing words in context as well as the various readings. That is, even if you memorize all possible readings, you still can’t automatically “read” the kanji when it’s combined with others. According to Wikipedia, a “total of 13,108 characters can be encoded in various Japanese Industrial Standards for kanji.”

It’s really fascinating to learn kanji and start to unlock the mysterious symbols around you (literacy = empowerment!), but it takes so much work, essentially memorization, that can go on for a lifetime.

Some homework

Sakura season is waning

In our part of Japan, the cherry blossom season is waning—many trees are still a shimmering pink, but green is starting to show through and the petals are fluttering down.

We live on a beautiful sakura-lined street, and you can feel everyone’s happy spirit as they walk a bit slower than usual to gaze up at the blossoms.

Winter in Japan

“Winter in Japan” is diverse, actually, as there are several climatic regions. Northern Japan has some of the snowiest large cities on earth, while Okinawa in the south is tropical.

My experience is of the Kanto region (that is, central eastern Japan), where it gets cold, but not too cold, and snow is fairly rare in recent years. Lately the overnight temperature has been getting down to 0 C (32 F), which is very chilly when you don’t have central heating or proper insulation. I don’t know about northern locales, but around here, people generally have wall-mounted air conditioner / heaters, and frequently kerosene or electric space heaters, and drafty windows and doors.

For readers in warmer climes who romanticize the idea of a cold winter, let me remind you of the following: drippy noses, never-ending colds, everyone coughing on the bus, numb fingers and toes, steamed up glasses when you come inside, being simultaneously hot and cold when you’re bundled up but walking around a lot, mold danger from window condensation, slipping on ice, feeling dried out from heaters, painfully cold water from the taps, etc. etc. etc. So yeah, not that romantic.

Anyway, the point of this blog post was to share a nifty list from the Gaijinpot blog, with ‘top 10 tips‘ for winter comfort in Japan. In summary:

  1. Thick curtains and window-sealing plastic
  2. Socks and slippers
  3. Nabe (hot-pot) dinners
  4. Kotatsu (yay!)
  5. Electric carpets
  6. Hot baths
  7. Electric kettles
  8. Walk around in the mall
  9. Stick-on warmers
  10. Travel somewhere else!

(Click through to the blog post to read more.)