At this moment, from my hotel window, I am looking out over the airfield of the Yokota US airbase. There is some kind of helicopter training exercise going on.
Yes, I’m back in Japan but just on a whistle-stop data-gathering visit. I’m interviewing foreigners with interesting and/or unusual lives, and I’m also taking the opportunity to add interviews to my long-term project on British Women in Japan. My schedule is chocka, but if I haven’t caught up with you this time, I’ll be back again soon, and I’ll probably spend more time in western Japan.
It’s strange to be back here (again). It took a lot of effort to get away in 2013 – I had lived here so long and hadn’t realised that I had put down so many deep roots. But after nearly two years back in the UK, I think I am over the worst of the reverse culture shock. And, according to my ex-students, my Japanese has all but disappeared.
So what has changed since last year? There are fewer English language books in all but the main bookstores: Kinokuniya in Shinjuku and Maruzen in the Oazo shopping plaza in the Tokyo station area. And the English secondhand floor at Book Off in Shirokanedai has gone! (Actually the whole shop has gone – it is now a drugstore selling discount toilet paper.) Only Good Day Books in Gotanda seems to have any secondhand English stock, and I hoovered up the best of that last week. Asking around, I am hearing that this has all happened since Amazon arrived in Japan. Books are so expensive to ship, but a Kobo is about 4,000 Yen. I do see a lot of Kobo’s and Kindles on the subway these days. And fewer manga dumped in the overhead racks.
I was surprised at the lack of English books because there seem to be more foreigners here than ever. Consequently, from disgruntled colleagues, I am hearing that the bottom is falling out of the freelance translation market – companies are paying 10,000 Yen per job rather than the 150,000 Yen that was a living wage. The same is happening with ‘talentos’: foreign advertising talent used to be able to command around 250,000 Yen for a big company advertising campaign. Now it’s 50,000 Yen – take it or leave it. Teaching salaries are going down by 15% too. And that is on top of the fact that companies have to give temporary employees a full-time contract after five years, with the accompanying health and pension benefits. The result: companies are firing teachers after four years and 364 days. Last week, a teacher asked me if I knew of the Mitaka health clinic which is kind to foreigners with no health insurance. I didn’t but it made made me realise that there are people out there who can’t afford to get medical help when they are ill.
Of course, this doesn’t just apply to foreigners. The Japanese are suffering equally. Some of my ex-students who did not get full-time jobs on graduation are temping now, on low wages with no health or pension benefits.
I have also noticed that prices have risen. This is partly due to the rise in consumption tax from 5 to 8%. And maybe also the exchange rates. A Brit can still make some good savings here but American friends are telling me that the poor Yen/US Dollar exchange rate is all but wiping them out. That they might as well flip burgers at home.
So here I am spying on the American military from my hotel window. The American military has been a strong presence in my Japan life ever since I arrived in 1993, and went to the same Mossburger as the US airforce guys who were stationed at some Japanese base near Hamamatsu. Then, when I moved to Tokyo, one of the few English-language radio stations I could pick up was the Yokota airforce station, which played a lot of white bread rock’n’roll and reminded its airmen to take their locker keys with them whenever they left the base. I never found out why. But until last week, I had never actually seen the base.
Last week, I was walking in the nearby hills with an archaeologist and from atop a medieval castle site we could see right out over the entire airfield. Two C130’s kept circling over Yokota, touching their wheels down to the tarmac and accelerating up again. For hours. I thought it was wonderful … and extremely noisy … but I’m not sure the locals would agree with me.