Thursday 28 July 2022

ABritishProfinJapan - in Britain! FIVE Differences between the UK and Japan

Summer holidays have arrived and after three years of staying in Japan during the pandemic I was more than ready for a trip back home to the UK. Tokyo had been incredibly hot in June - we had the shortest rainy season ever - and with the prospect of another scorching Japanese summer I was looking forward to escaping the heat in Blighty. Unfortunately, my plans were scuppered by a UK heatwave which saw temperatures exceed 40℃ for the first time ever. Which leads to difference number ONE: most houses in the UK have no aircon - the same word is used in Japanese too! - and train services become patchy as the tracks buckle. In contrast, everyone has an aircon (エアコン) in Japan and train services remain unaffected!

A SECOND difference is obviously the COVID-19 situation. My British friends were amazed when I said I'd never done a lateral flow (antigen) test before (another difference: these test kits were given out free in the UK, though in the latest 7th wave the Tokyo government has finally started distributing kits for free). When I left Japan on July 12th, the 7th wave was just beginning and by July 22nd new cases had almost hit 200,000. Compare that to the UK which had a minuscule 738 new cases on the same day! Of course, this can be partly explained by the fact that most people in the UK have already caught COVID - the Guardian estimated that only 15% of people in the UK have never had COVID (compared to less than 10% in Japan who HAVE had COVID!). Basically, the UK has returned to normal and despite posters on public transport advising that "face coverings should be worn", BritishProf was the only person masking up! Well, me and the odd Asian tourist anyway.

Staying on the subject of public transport, both London (Oyster) and Tokyo (Pasmo/Suica) have contactless IC travel cards that can be used on trains and buses. The THIRD difference, however, is that the scope and span of the cards are quite different: whereas Pasmo/Suica can be used throughout Japan (Japan has a very centralised government), the Oyster card is limited to London only, with different regions using different cards (my favourite is the aptly named Mussel card in Cornwall). Pasmo can also be used in convenience stores, coin lockers, and even to buy drinks from vending machines. Super convenient! Conversely, the UK is far more advanced in terms of contactless (wireless) payment. Indeed, in contrast to Japan, where cash remains king, London was almost cashless in many places - even the ice-cream vans didn't accept my cash!

Moving onto something completely different, as an avid dog-walker, I enjoyed taking my friends' dogs to the park in the UK - and noticing some of the differences with Japan (now we get to number FOUR). In the first place, given that most Japanese live in small apartments without a garden, dogs tend to be small and light (our apartment building insists we carry our dog when within the building grounds and sets the max weight at 10kg). It comes as no surprise then that the most popular dog breeds in Japan are the Toy Poodle and the Chihuahua compared with the Labrador Retriever in the UK. In fact, dogs are treated more like children in Japan, and are dressed up and groomed to within an inch of their life. This means that many dog owners in Japan don't even take their dogs out for a walk and even those that do never let them off the lead (only a few areas in fact allow this, mainly enclosed "dog-runs" which you have to pay for). I've been so long in Japan, that it's always a shock to see that dogs are let free to run in parks and forests in the UK (except for areas where dogs must be kept on a short lead). I was also surprised at the £1000 (¥165,000) fine for not cleaning up after your dog - as well as the fact that it's OK to deposit the poop in a bin before going home (in Japan poop has to be brought back home and flushed down the loo).

Finally, talking of dog walkers, having a dog is an excuse in both countries to chat with strangers. However, whereas in England it is quite common for walkers to greet strangers with a friendly hello and comment about the weather, Japanese typically don't greet or make small talk with strangers. This (FIFTH) difference is most visible in shops. In the UK, customers will almost always greet cashiers and shop staff and chat while paying for their shopping. In contrast, in Japan there is a clear hierarchical gap between customer and staff and the words used by shopkeepers are strictly scripted and painfully polite (stores will often have manuals containing set phrases). For example, walking into a shop you will invariably be greeted with the phrase irrashaimase ( ) which means "welcome" but demands no response. Indeed, it is perfectly normal - and not considered at all rude - for a customer to shop without saying a word. BritishProf's early attempts to say konnichiwa, "how are you" (genki desuka), and "this please" only served to traumatise every shopkeeper he encountered.

Well that's my FIVE differences, but there are surely many more - let me know what you think in the COMMENTS! In the meantime, while looking at differences can be entertaining it is important to note that there are also plenty of similarities between the two island-nations: one of those is the stunning beauty of the natural environment, especially the coastlines.