How is Japan?

I have been asked this question about 100 times; and the brief answer is Japan is good. But that is a lie, Japan is not good. Japan is excellent. Japan is great. Japan is amazing. It is very different from home (Kenya), but it is also not home. I am about to contradict myself and say, it is home for now. So how different is it from Kenya?

This post is likely to be long.. so sit back and relax. (If you want you can skip to the title “Japanese people are kind” for personal experiences and observation, otherwise start straight below)

Japan is very clean. Walking through an average estate in Nairobi, you will note garbage dumped in vacant plots, plastic bags swaying in the wind and finally settling in the drainage by the roadside, and dust blowing into your face from the unpaved pedestrian pavement (where it exists) or from the unpaved road. Well, Nairobi CBD (downtown) is clean, especially West of Moi Avenue, the streets are cooler, it is quieter etc. But there is a waste management problem in the inner estates, and in the country as a whole. In Japan, garbage is sorted down to the last category, and there are different collection days for different types of garbage. In Kenya we include our plastic, used diapers, glass, metal and everything else into one garbage bag that is then picked up once a week. Street children then spend their time sorting out this mound of garbage for recyclables that they can resell. Not unlike India.

Waste pickers in India. Photo [courtsey]

Waste pickers in India. Photo [courtesy]

From the remotest of villages to the largest of the cities, the roads are paved, the streets are clean and garbage is presorted. “The dirtiest” city I have seen so far is Osaka, my friend and I were surprised at some litter under bridges, so by Japanese standards it is dirty. But don’t say it is a third world problem, just look at Rwanda! I stayed there for 3 months and I dare say Rwanda is as clean as Japan; no Japan is as clean as Rwanda! Rwanda has banned plastic bags and so far that works for them. In addition one Saturday a month, everyone gathers for communal clean-up.

Japan has even managed to turn garbage into artificial islands on which Skyscrapers have been erected. Like Port Island in Kobe City, see image below.

Port Island in Kobe City. Image, courtsey

Port Island in Kobe City. Image, courtesy

Japan is very safe

There is virtually no street crime. When you live in a small city (or in a rural area like me), you don’t have to lock your house. Even in the large cities, it is not a problem if you forget to lock your house in the morning. You can forget your phone and wallet  somewhere and find it there the next time, or someone will call you and get them to you. As a woman, you can walk along the streets at night, alone, without fear of robbery or rape. You can use your smartphone in a crowded street without fear of it being snatched, you don’t have to worry about your bag in the streets or in public transport, your wallet is very unlikely to be pickpocketed (I resist the urge to tell Japanese people to tuck in their wallets more safely into their pockets, the men’s wallets are always popping out of their back pockets!), when you drive home late in the evening, you don’t have to worry about carjackers, when you have bought a 60-inch screen you don’t have to worry if someone saw you with it and they are planning a gunned robbery.. and so on and so forth.

In contrast, just the other day as my dad arrived home late one evening, there were armed robbers who ambushed him, took his laptop and phone; and as my mum had opened the door to let him in when she heard the car, they forced their way into the house and demanded money at gun-point. I was so furious yet helpless, thousands of miles away and even if I were home, I am not sure what I would have done. When I left work for home in the evening, I would walk from Upperhill to Ambassador, Moi Avenue, to catch a bus home. I wouldn’t dare freely use my Samsung Note 3  while walking in the streets as I have had my phone snatched before. At the bus stop, there would be a large crowd of people gathered and not all of them are passengers-to-be, some are opportunistic thieves waiting for a chance to pickpocket you. You have to be always on the lookout.

As such, whenever a Japanese person says “abunai desu ka” or “abunai desu ne”.. “is it dangerous” “it must be dangerous”, I just say “soo desu ne” “yes it is”. What other defense is there? I do not have sufficient Japanese vocabulary to explain that when you are born Kenyan, you grow up under these circumstances so this is “normal” to you; the need to be always alert. A violent robbery (thank God no lives were lost), a snatched phone (you will get another one soon), a lost wallet (IDs are replaceable don’t worry), you forget something somewhere and that’s the end of that. I was talking to a Japanese student and told him he was welcome to visit Kenya and he visibly shuddered. abunai he uttered. I tried to explain to him that the whole country is not like that, there are safe places and there are un-safe places. But really, even when you live in a gated community with electric fencing and a trained guard with dogs, there is always the fear of carjacking etc. Kenya is not thaat dangerous, especially if it is home. And anyway, death could find you wherever you are (natural disasters anyone?), so really do take some risks (you risk death just by being alive)and come see Kenya for yourself, it is a lovely place to visit. If you are a foreigner reading this, you are missing an experience of a lifetime, I speak from experience.

Americans think the world revolves around them :)

Americans think the world revolves around them 🙂

Japan’s Home to the The Bullet Trains

Japan’s public transportation system has got to be among the best in the world. Sure, rush hour in Tokyo’s metro can feel suffocating (so I hear) but trains are an efficient way to move human traffic in cities. Sure beats Nairobi’s rush hour (and all day) traffic as well. When I went to Tokyo, the subway was amazing, going up to 7 levels below the ground, a different line on each level. Anyway, for comparison I have posted this before, but check it out again:


The Nairobi Commuter Train Route.

The Nairobi Commuter Train Route. Image from

Tokyo: and this is not even the complete map.

The Tokyo Train Map.

The Tokyo Train Map. Image from

Of course we can’t compare Tokyo’s 13.35 Million population against Nairobi’s 3.123 Million, but bypasses, abolishing roundabouts, smart traffic lights etc will not solve our perennial traffic congestion problem. We need trains, subways, monorails.

A suspended mono-rail, how cool is this?

A suspended mono-rail, how cool is this? Image from wikipedia

Japan is very mountainous

Kenya has a vast savanna grassland, think of the entire stretch of Tsavo as you drive from Nairobi to Mombasa. And for the life of me, I cannot think of a single tunnel passing through a mountain, can you? Travelling by bus from Tokyo to Kanazawa, or from Kanazawa to Osaka, you realize just how mountainous this country is when you go through tunnel after tunnel after tunnel after tunnel! Japan holds the record for the longest railway tunnel in the world that is 53,850 m (over 53 Kms!) long. Perhaps this mountainous terrain contributed to Japan’s advancement in engineering, conquering the mountains could not have been easy!

Well, this is a very short tunnel but you get the point!

Short tunnel

Short tunnel

Japan is a beautiful country, it’s breathtaking sometimes. With four distinct seasons (a beautiful spring, hot summer -though not as hot as India! – an auburn autumn and a white winter). I could describe it all it you but it will take the fun out for the imaginative as well as for the wanna-be explorers.

Japan is very proud of its culture and gardens! It has a rich history whose remains in form of old temples, castles, and shrines still stand today.

Japanese people are kind.

Case scenario: my friend told me he spent some time in India. If you are a black person in India, you are treated like you are in the lowest caste, a system of discrimination that still stands to date. I guess India has so many other problems that they don’t want to deal with this at the moment but as anyone (black) who has been to India will tell you, rude stares, snide remarks, and standing up when you sit next to them in public transport are the order of the day. Worse is, my friend even got the discriminating treatment from staff in the hotel he was staying in. Worst, is the news of a violent attack on 3 black African students in India.

In contrast, he told me a story of how he got stranded at Kanazawa Station, being new in Japan and not knowing the bus/train schedules. When he arrived the last bus was long gone. A Japanese couple noticed him and offered him a ride to Nomi Station, from where we take the train to JAIST (university). The last train was gone too, and even as he got off and looked around, the couple came back and asked him where he was going. He didn’t understand Japanese so he just showed them his school ID and they went  30 Kms out of their way to drop him off in JAIST way after 11pm. He has never seen the couple since then.  I have heard various stories from foreigners in Japan who tell of the acts of kindness they have received from Japanese people.

Kanazawa Station. Image, courtesy.

Kanazawa Station. Image, courtesy.

No, I am not saying that Japanese people are perfect, or that Japan is perfect, but you are likely to receive help from kind strangers in Japan than in any other country I have ever heard of or experienced. In other words I think that the concentration of kind people is higher in Japan. Perhaps because they are brought up in a culture that emphasizes the importance of courtesy and respect.

Obama showing respect the Japanese way

Obama showing respect the Japanese way

Will you experience discrimination, disguised under politeness so excessive you can’t even tell if it is discrimination or an actual lack of understanding? Maybe. But is there a perfect country? In any case, I have experienced discriminatory service at Java Upperhill where white people who came later than us were served immediately while we waited for an interminable length of time. Imagine that, in my own country. Makes my blood boil. Fucking black racists. As if our money has a black mark that lowers its value or as if our credit cards aren’t platinum enough. takes deep breath, releases deep breath. Let’s move on.

Excellent service

At first it can be shocking to enter a restaurant and hear a chorus of irashaimase! (Welcome). You will also be addressed a with honorific title, okyaku-sama (honoured customer).  When you exit the shop/restaurant, it is likely that all the staff will signal to one other and you could hear another chorus of arigatou gozaimasu. The customer is king and Japanese people lead by example in demonstrating this. Excellent service is available everywhere, even at the cheapest of places. In contrast, good service in Kenya is mostly available in star-rated restaurants. Imagine walking into a shop like Mr. Price and expecting all staff to welcome you, it is more likely that you will get a look that says, oh God here comes another one. And in Japan you don’t tip. Your change comes back to you to the last yen. (The tipping culture in the US began when there was a law passed that allowed tips to make up the difference between actual pay and minimum wage). As such, tipping is agonizing for Japanese people whenever they travel to the US.

Tipping rules in the US. SO complicated! How will the Japanese read all this English? And who wants to do math? In Japan you just pay what's on your bill and you are still assured of excellent service.

Tipping rules in the US. SO complicated! How will the Japanese read all this English? And who wants to do math? In Japan you just pay what’s on your bill and you are still assured of excellent service.

You could say Japanese people are punctual, they keep time to the last possible second. You have to leave your “African timing” mindset the moment you set foot on the plane. Even for social functions you can’t be late, you call to apologize if you are going to be 5 minutes late, not like in Kenya where friends will call you 30 minutes later to tell you they are stuck in traffic.

Japanese people don’t take risks. 

Herein lies their Archilles’ heel, if you ask me. For example if I go into a phone shop to ask for a SIM card, and this is the first time a foreigner is walking in to buy a SIM card, the attendant will ask their supervisor what to do. If the supervisor has no experience with foreigners, he will refer to the manual, they have a manual for every little procedure you can think of! If there is nothing in the manual, he may call his boss who will then check his manual, if this boss finds nothing he will call his boss.. and so on and so forth. Sometimes I joke that in the end they call the prime minister just to avoid risks by making any new decisions. Or ANY decisions. Japanese workers DO NOT make any decisions, they just do what they are told or what the manual says they should do. Decision making is only left to those whose role explicitly states “decision maker” but I bet even they too have a manual. So it’s like they don’t think for themselves, a robot nation  that worked well for when Japan was rising and rising and it needed workers for its massive corporations. But the tide is slowly turning and an innovative and changing society is how nations can cope with the current economic situation.

Japanese people don’t know how to loosen up, to let go, to have fun. Oh sure, they have izakayas (bars that are like boring locals) but it is not fun to just sit and drink, you need to get up and dance Japanese people. And I don’t mean the graceful sashaying of geishas that can put the most restless child to sleep; no, like shake your bodies mugiithi-style, or Jacob-Zuma style. Shake that booty, shake that belly, shake those shoulders, shake it, shake it. Shake your problems away. You can find nightclubs in the big cities but they clubs are fewer, perhaps located in “shaky/scary” neighbourhoods, so dance clubs are not a big a culture. By contrast in Kenya, there is dancing every pub/club, even some locals. When the alcohol in your blood reaches certain levels, your body catches the tune of the music and you move your body to the real or imagined tune. You don’t even have to be drunk to dance, look at our weddings, and funerals, and other celebrations, even Sunday mass/church services – I guess the holy spirit is at work here?

Jacob Zuma shows how it is done during the ceremony of his nth wife

Jacob Zuma shows how it is done during the wedding ceremony of his nth wife. I am sure I will never see a public figure dancing, in public, in Japan.

No one knows how to have fun like Africans do. Perhaps South Americans come close.. but in spite of our problems and our bottom-of-the-economic-pile status, we don’t let that get to us. In contrast Japanese people may not want to talk about their problems, don’t have a way to let loose or perhaps “pray to God” which is what we do a lot, “we leave that to God”. They will walk with the weight of their problems into Mount Fuji’s suicide forest, never to be seen alive again.

If a Japanese person loses honour, it is a big shame not only to you but to your family as well. Some Japanese politicians have in the past committed suicide after being named in corruption scandals. A worthy politician in Kenya has several scandals under his “experience” belt. Kenyan (African) politicians simply have no capacity for embarrassment or shame. In my mother tongue I would say, mbabwati egesokero.

Japanese People are conservative. They don’t question authority. I have never seen a march/protest of any kind, perhaps there is nothing to protest about? I have never heard of a union of workers. Most of the Japanese people I know in formal employment work long hours. In spite of its technological advancement, I think that socially/culturally there is no room for even a little personal freedom.

There are no babies out of wedlock. Such a thing is unheard of. If a girl gets pregnant before marriage, she has to have an abortion (or get married), abortion is legal for many reasons including economic ones. See, a society that is liberal enough to allow for abortion should also be liberal enough to accept babies born to unwed parents, no? Single parenthood is virtually unheard of.

Which brings me to the family situation. An interesting fact is usually, the man’s salary will go into the wife’s account; normally a woman will stop working once she gets married to take care of the family. Therefore it is the woman who manages the money for bills, school fees, rent, and the husband’s expenditure, she determines who gets how much. They say this is the reason that Japan’s literacy rate is close to 100%, women are better fund managers and no mother is going to waste money on drinking with the mboys (Kenyans you feel me?) while school fees has not been paid.

There are no house helps/servants/domestic workers/maids/housekeepers, whatever you may call them; I have never seen a Japanese family worker. Even if you wanted to hire one, it would be too costly, you would rather stay home and pay yourself that money to take care of our own children. There are daycare centers for women who want to work, of course. But I get the feeling that this society expects you to quit your job and raise the kids (after all, if your husband is in formal employment i.e. salary man), he should make enough for the family. US families can afford cheap housekeepers from Latin America (that is what US dramas show) because US is somewhat immigration friendly. Now don’t look at me like that, see US has an immigration policy in the first place. I am not sure that Japan has such a policy that states how it can fill gaps in its employment with foreigners. And the gaps are there, what with the world’s oldest population and general population decrease.

Japan has no immigration policy

I think Japanese people adopt a “tolerant” attitudes towards foreigners, like “aww look at that baby” attitude “when will he grow up”. I get the feeling that they don’t expect you to stay long in Japan, to become “one of them”. You can be born in Japan, grow up here, receive your education in Japanese, adopt Japanese manners, be Japanese in everything except looks, but you will never be accepted as fully Japanese. In contrast, someone born in say, the US, can easily blend in and identify themselves as American. Or British. Or French. Just to show an example. Sure no one is going to force you out! You can stay as long as you like! But there is no plan to open up Japan to immigration, so really there is “no space” for you. Here is an article to illustrate my point: Japan’s ‘no immigration principle’ looking as solid as ever. In short, you are welcome to Japan, but please you can’t stay forever. You can never become Japanese. Oh you can get citizenship and permanent residency but never the intangible “I am Japanese” feeling, how can you, when no Japanese would ever identify you as one of them..

This should not be mistaken for discrimination or unfriendliness; no as above stated Japanese people are generally kind and friendly and tolerant to foreigners (who are coming for a short stay). I am Kenyan in culture, race etc so no, I do not want to become Japanese. However, I worry about my son. He is just 2 years old and I will soon be bringing him to Japan. We will stay here for at least 3 years for the duration of my PhD. If I do stay longer, what kind of life will he have in a “no immigration” “homogeneous” “Japanese is one-race” place? If he were to grow up here, he will speak Japanese as his main language, have Japanese friends, absorb Japanese mannerisms and culture; but he will never be Japanese. Anyway what I am saying is, I am a citizen of the world and I will stay where there is a good opportunity to make a change etc, but my main consideration is bringing up a happy and successful child.

What Else?

Over 3,000 words! Pat yourself on the back for reaching here. There could be more but I will write that as time goes by, for instance the bureaucracy, the multiple form-filling for any simple service, ATMs that don’t operate 24-hours, the complicated process of renting a private apartment, the manga culture,  etc. I suppose this makes Japan as safe as it is now so there are trade-offs.

Apologies if I sounded whiny or critical of this wonderful nation and its distinctive people, I do love it here! Opinions here are my own and I could be wrong. I have only been here for about 9 months so I am no expert.

Next time someone asks me “How is Japan” I will just send them a link to this blog post. I doubt they will ever repeat that question to me, ever!

Thanks for reading.

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19 Responses to How is Japan?

  1. gnturibi says:

    Questions answered.Now I feel like I have been there! Good piece


  2. Alex says:

    Pole sana, I hope your folks are ok. Us Kenyans have become so used to looking over our shoulders we forget its not supposed to be this way. *Kenyan shrug* Ndio maisha.

    That shrug is also the reason I’m convinced you and Jeremy will be fine (you will be), possible future complications and all. 🙂

    Japan sounds fun, and funny/frustrating. Thanks for the post (it wasnt thaaat long, and it had pictures..). One thing though, you left out the salacious details. How is Japan..ese man? 😀


    • savvykenya says:

      Yes about Jeremy, someone also told me that children will be okay wherever they grow up if you provide guidance. Sometimes I wonder, heh? Provide guidance when I don’t even know where I am going, being a parent is about having blind faith.

      Oh there is much I left out about Japan, and her people. More posts will follow.


      • Alex says:

        All I know about parenting is what I was subjected to by my parents. Ha! I figure for as long as you’re constantly thinking of how to make his life better, make him happy, then you’re on the right track. Growing up in Japan will be a fantastic experience, and home will always be here when you need it. My bandia 2 cents. 🙂


      • savvykenya says:

        Good thinking, as long as his happiness is my priority then all should be well, plus Japan is a fantastic country .. now i am less worried about the future.


  3. Lionel says:

    Thank you Savvy for this post.
    Aren’t we all citizens of the world?

    Sad about our African politicians…..

    I wait for the next posts…..


    • savvykenya says:

      We need to enter politics in the hope that we can make a change, however small.. let us not resign to the status quo. #Africa

      Yes we are citizens of the world, can we abolish passports and borders already?


  4. woolie says:

    This is a brilliant post, Savvy. I’m sure that I became a fan of your travel writing on a most splendid bus journey to Rwanda. You do the ‘Foreign Correspondent’ gig so well. Alex has talked about the bandia 2 cents. My own 2 cents is that nobody tells the real story of a country like a ‘foreigner’. If anyone doubts me, go read again the pieces about Kenya done by Charles Onyango-Obbo. There is a charming objectivity in your writing that leaves the reader yearning for more. I am a fan of the NHK channel for simply the same reason: Japan is a fascinating country and we could learn so much from it.

    When all is said and done, though – there is no place like home. Our country is undergoing amazing and rapid change and it may continue to face difficult times ahead; we must remember though that the disorder and insecurity that are sadly so common today, are a symptom of these changes that we are going through and not a permanent feature of our beloved country.



    • savvykenya says:

      Kenya is also an amazing country and foreigners coming to visit often fall in love with it and sometimes settle forever. Sometimes when you step outside the country you start to appreciate it more, but you also have a better view, objective view of the country. You are right, what we see now, the insecurity, is not a permanent fixture but a sign of transition, the “developing” stage, I hope though that we can reach our destination soon even if our leaders keep dragging us down.


  5. Brilliant post Savvy. Love reading about your experience in Japan. Being in a place different from home always sets our perspective right, I think. Makes you a better citizen of your own too.


    • savvykenya says:

      That’s true, in fact I am now more patriotic than never! I hope to return soon, maybe to make some changes?

      There is much we can learn from the Japanese people that we can apply to help us develop. Their work ethic is to envy; how can a country with virtually no resources develop into first world status? The people of course!

      While Kenya may not have much in terms of mineral resources, we have nature on our side: wildlife, stunning beaches, arable land, no typhoons, earthquakes etc and most of all, a young virile and energetic population that we should put into good use. I should write a paper on this!


  6. Grace Mwaura says:

    Excellent! Having read your blog since ’10, I can tell from the length of the last two articles that the #phdlife is on its better part of you. Keep up, always get refreshed by your posts.


  7. Aosindi254 says:

    I cannot agree any less; been in Japan for almost same period as you, and I can affirm that what you have said goes a long way to tell the whole truth. Great blogging skills; this almost ignited my writing spirit 🙂


  8. Gertrude says:

    Such an interesting read. I enjoyed reading every word of it. Coming to Japan next month. Cant wait to experience all these and many more 🙂 🙂


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