Living in a Bubble in Japan

If you live in Japan but have never learned to speak or read Japanese, you are definitely living in a bubble because you are limited in your interaction with the world around you. If you live in a university campus, then you are in an even thicker, more insulated bubble. You have no idea what’s happening in the news, no idea about the events or discussions in the society around you, or you could even be clueless of the disasters in other parts of Japan because you probably don’t watch the local news (or any news at all). Your only source of information is social media. It is not impossible to first know of an earthquake in another part of Japan through a friend from your home country asking you if you are alright. People outside of Japan know more about what’s happening in Japan than you do, yet you live here.

Living in a bubble may be drama-free, but it's no way to live. Or is it?

Living in a bubble may be drama-free, but it’s no way to live. Or is it?


I live in a university campus. What this means is that I am living in a bubble with my fellow international students. We’ve created our own little community and we barely have any interaction with the “real” Japanese society except the drives to the supermarket, restaurants or petrol (gas) stations. The few times we do get invited into Japanese peoples’ homes, it is to the homes of our friends. These are Japanese people who are welcoming to foreigners, and who understand that there exist other cultures, norms and societies outside of Japan.

However, in a few months, I will be leaving this campus behind and joining the real society. In Japanese, they call it 社会人 “shakaijin”. I had a rude awakening the other day when I had this uncomfortable encounter with a Japanese lady; which made me realize that I have been in a bubble all along because I’ve spent the last 4 years in campus, relatively drama free. Literally, never even had a single argument with anyone.

Then the other day (was it two months ago?), I got a call from the nursery school that J had damaged the bike of kid who lives next to the school. I was called there to apologize. I had no idea what they were talking about as I myself had put the bike back in place after J was done playing with it and it was in mint condition. So anyway, we drove back to the school to apologize for the damage. The kid’s mum came out to show us the damage and I was looking for a bent spoke, deflated tyre or something like that. I couldn’t see it.

That was when she indicated the scraped plastic on the basket of the little bike.

The "damage" on the bike

The “damage” on the bike

Now, I am not sure if Jeremy did cause the scrapes on the plastic basket, but for sure he did ride the bike for a couple of rounds. So of course, I apologized.

The exchange went something like this (summarized, because we went round in circles):

“Oh you can’t call this damage. It’s a small thing, I am sorry.”

I thought that would be the end of it.

“But I don’t want my son to ride a damaged bike.”

“Damaged? I don’t understand. This bike still moves, the small scratch doesn’t affect its ability to move in any way.”

“No, my son cannot ride such a bike. “

“But your son will soon put scratches on it anyway. It’s a kid’s bike, that’s what kids do.”

“Yes, if it were my son riding it and caused the scratch, that would be okay. But another person’s child…”

“But your kid won’t notice.”

“But I do notice. I worked hard to buy that bike for him.”

Silence. The conversation was deteriorating, and fast.

“What kind of society do you expect to live in when you cannot forgive such a small thing?” I was fast losing the little Japanese I have mustered.

“So you think it’s ok to take the bike and ride it even though it’s not yours.”

“The bike wasn’t locked. If you don’t want other people to ride it, you should’ve put a lock on it.”

And on and on it went.

There wasn’t going to be an end to this. She wasn’t being reasonable, I thought. I was yet to understand that this isn’t Kenya. I was yet to see the bigger picture, to understand why this was a big deal.

In JAIST, our kids play with one another’s toys and bikes all the time. The toys and bikes might get scratches, or even get damaged or destroyed. All in a day’s play. No big deal.

But in Japanese society, there are people who value their stuff. They take great care not to have a single blemish on their items. You will be surprised at items in second hand stores that are still in mint condition. Japanese people also never touch anyone else property, especially if the owner is unknown. That’s why if you drop your wallet somewhere, it is possible it will lie there untouched for weeks. Unless someone picks it up and takes it to the police station. Usually, by picking it up, it means you are assuming responsibility, which is not something a Japanese person wants: making an individual decision. This is something I am understanding in retrospect. At the time of the bike incident however, I still couldn’t wrap my mind around the supposed “damage”.

Fortunately or unfortunately, I had more important issues on my mind that week.  This included a work-related trip to Tokyo the following  Friday for a second interview at the company I am hoping to join after graduation, and a preliminary defense of my thesis on the following Monday.

In the end, I understood what she wanted. The lady didn’t want the basket replaced. She wanted a new bike. No one in Japan (and other first world countries with such kind of first world problems) would be surprised by such a request. I could’ve ignored her and opened a whole can of worms. It wouldn’t be unheard of for the police to be called for something as trivial as this. And they might just come out not in one, but in 2 or 3 police cars. Maybe even with some detectives. (This may be a story for another day.)

The following day I went to ToysRUS and luckily, they had the exact same one.

ToysRUS bike for kids

Got the same exact bike.. cost about $100


I know some Kenyans may be reading this and wondering, WTF Savvy? You actually went out and bought a new bike because of a scratch on a plastic basket?

No way, WTF?

No way, WTF?

I also know that some Japanese people (and others from a different realm that isn’t Kenya e.g. Swiss)  may be reading this and wondering at my audacity, letting Jeremy ride another kid’s bike…

Really Savvy? How could you?

Really Savvy? How could you?

I now understand both sides. I stand in the middle of the cultural divide. It’s not an easy world to navigate.

Some Kenyans could do with a little more respect towards other people’s property. And some Japanese could do well to relax a bit, be less anal. After all, they are just that, things. I come from a culture where relationships with others matter more than things.

Anyway, once you venture out of your bubble you start to realize there’s a whole new side to “friendly” Japan. You start to understand that Japan as a country is suffering from OCD. The slightest variation from the normal routine could upset everyone. It’s like a robot nation sometimes. If it’s not ridiculous for a hotel to waste paper printing emails for a 1 minute internet outage, or for a rail company to apologize for leaving the station 20 seconds earlier than planned, then it shouldn’t be surprising to be asked to buy a new bike to replace a scratched one.

I guess in Kenya we have real world problems, like corruption of the highest, grandest order.

Anyway, I can no longer say that my life is boring. Especially since I am days away from defending my thesis and beginning a new chapter of my life, which might entail venturing outside of the bubble I’ve been living in.

This entry was posted in Blog, Japan, Life in Japan, Work and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Living in a Bubble in Japan

  1. Agnes Wanjiru says:

    I hope J gets to keep the ‘damaged’ bike . I like how you navigated this!


    • SK says:

      Yes, he’s been enjoying riding the bike!
      However, I may not have handled it as coolly as it sounds. I have had 2 months to cool down before writing the story.


  2. Zenah Nyagogwa says:

    I see the importance of learning to speak and read a language of the place you’re living! And you made everything easy by buying another bike to replace the damaged..


    • SK says:

      Honestly, it was the easier route to take. I had thought the bike was so expensive but was surprised to find it cost 100USD. And I got to keep the damaged bike. So all’s well that ends well?


  3. That woman had other uknown issues. .who in this world despite our cultural differences doesn’t understand kids behaviour, they are messy and rough. .peharps she wanted to bully you for no good reason since your a foreigner…A very ridiculous claims.


    • SK says:

      Yes, the thought occurred to me that she may have been behaving that way because I’m a foreigner; but this wasn’t the time to delve into what issues she may have been having. I just let her be. I’ll focus on my blindingly bright future!


  4. Ressa Kombi says:

    This is so absurd. This tatemae will drown this country. Anyway, Savvy, sorry about everything ne…


  5. Donna K says:

    A smart person knows what to say. A wise person knows whether or not to say it. Am sorry girlie, but am glad your such a wise soul. All the best Savvy, you are an inspiration.


  6. Norbert says:

    I have quite some contact with Japanese families with kids, and none of the parents I know would have been an ass like the one you met. Sorry to hear, bitches are everywhere. I wouldn’t blame it on Japanese or not Japanese, this is for my a personal incompetence of the mother, nothing else.


    • SK says:

      I agree, this isn’t typical human behaviour. The mother is simply … bitchy I guess. However, it’s something that is more likely to happen in Japan than in Kenya, that’s for sure. And I had no recourse, being a foreigner in Japan. If it had been in Kenya, I would’ve ignored the whole thing, I definitely wouldn’t have bought a new bike.


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