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Dr John Hawkins

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Posted on 2006/05/29 02:29:31 (May 2006).

[Sunday 28th May]
"When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life..." goes the famous quote from the good Doctor, Samuel Johnson. Whilst no doubt many people will disagree (not everyone likes the Big Smoke) from my perspective it pretty much hits the nail on the head. I lived in London for about 18 months, around 2000/2001. I look back on that time with immense fondness, and since then have gone back to London many times. I like London more and more every time I go there. Yes, it has its faults, but in my opinion for parks, pubs, museums, shops, restaurants and even just having an aimless wander around it has to be the best city in the world.

Currently however, I do not live in London, but instead in another major capital, the other side of the world. Samuel Johnson of course never came to Tokyo, but if he had, we might have heard an addendum to his famous observation.

"When a man is tired of Tokyo... he has been here about six months."

Yes, I am bored of Tokyo. I think I have now done everything there is to do!

Looking back it was a particularly boring weekend, and my current opinion of the city in which I live has undoubtedly been coloured by that. Saturday was wasted away on the computer (which could just have well been done anywhere in the world that has internet access). Today didn't really seem to consist of anything much at all. As usual for a Sunday, we had a lazy morning, and then just before lunch we started thinking about what to do. I even went so far as to have a look around on the web for inspiration. And you know what? There was nothing to do. Nothing. Nowhere I could find that interested me and I wanted to visit, and no events or anything on that caught my eye. So we did the usual trek into Shinjuku for lunch and a bit of shopping. Fundamentally though it was really rather boring, and Tokyo in general seemed like a very uninteresting place to be.

I spent some time theorising about this, and think I have hit upon why Tokyo is such a profoundly boring city. Everyone is too busy to do anything. Typical Japanese office workers, epitomised here in Tokyo, spend the week routinely pulling 12+ hour shifts. In the evenings after work (if any of the evening remains) they either go straight home, eat, and go to bed, or to to a bar, get mindlessly drunk, and then stagger home and go to bed. As for the weekends, well it seems not uncommon for people to be working Saturdays as well, and then when Sunday comes all the average office worker seems to want to do is stay at home and sleep, or perhaps if they can muster the energy, go out and do a bit of shopping.

Tokyo is a new city, and one that seems to have been designed just for working, eating, drinking and sleeping. If you are happy for your life to consist of nothing but these four things, then you may well have a great time here. Whilst I do enjoy eating and drinking, Japanese food (as already well documented on this site) is no good if you're vegetarian, and there comes a time -gasp- when even I tire of drinking.

Looking back through some old pictures, I realised how much time I spent when I was living in London enjoying the great outdoors - it is a fabulously green city, especially around Hampstead. Even without the wonderful parks, I used to love just taking a stroll about - along by the river, or to walk somewhere that I would normally take the tube - from Hampstead into the centre, from Elephant and Castle to Paddington, and so on. London is full of attractive buildings and suprisingly sleepy and peaceful little streets which are an absolutely pleasure to meander through.

Tokyo offers little pleasure to the would-be aimless wanderer. The buildings are ugly and there isn't a lot of greenery. Even the boat trip we took a few weeks back was, frankly, rather uninspiring. The narrator on the boat was doing her best, bless her, to make it sound exciting, but there is little exhiliration in the knowledge that the warehouse you are passing contains half a billion rivets used in the construction of sewage refineries, or whatever it was she was droning on about.

To temper all of this, it is important to note that I am probably the world's worst sufferer of "the grass is always greener" syndrome. when I was in England all I did was complain about trains being delayed and the terrible service you get in restaurants. Looking back through old pictures I noticed a fair few pictures taken in England of me eating Japanese food. Clearly at that time it was something exotic and exciting, whereas now, when these ingredients are available in their abundance, I'm generally just not interested. Cheddar has become the rare and exotic ingredient (and incidentally the block that George bought a couple of weeks back is now basically just rind).

That said, I still maintain that Tokyo is not as fun a place to live as London was - having been here more than six months I think I can say that with some authority. OK, Tokyo does have the advantage in terms of late night drinking - one can easily stay out until 4 or 5 in the morning without having to pay to get into a nightclub or whatever. Still though, right now, given a choice between an Asahi in a bustling Tokyo izakaya at 3AM, or an Adnam's in a nice old London pub at 10PM, the latter certainly sounds more attractive.

Comment 1

"Castle Donington is more boring than Tokyo". Discuss in a thousand words, compress onto a postcard (remember those?) and send to Father Christmas at the North Pole.

Or take up knitting, kiddo.

Posted by Mum at 2006/05/29 10:15:44.

Comment 2

Agree that Tokyo's "charms" of drinking and working, with a little time for sleeping inbetween, become extremely dull and repetitive after about 6 months. You are quite right, there is very little do apart from these 3 activities there.

Posted by i-cee at 2006/05/29 10:20:43.

Comment 3

Mum: small places can be expected to be boring (although at the other end of the spectrum there are places which are attractive because of their slow pace of life and isolation) - big cities like Tokyo though are meant to be exciting!

i-cee: Thanks for the backup there - it is somehow reassuring to know it is not just me who has come to this conclusion!

Maybe it is just a lull - I wouldn't be at all suprised if within this week I find some great new thing, and being in Japan is all wonderful again.... but right now it is hard to get enthusiastic about!

Posted by John at 2006/05/29 11:02:07.

Comment 4

Why don't you take a rifle, walk about the streets and shoot a few people (particularly those sick ones wearing white surgical masks). You'll feel much better, for sure!

Posted by Sheri at 2006/05/29 11:29:10.

Comment 5

Not trying to deepen your gloom or anything but I think it's hard to live in Japan long term unless you are able to integrate with the people - and I am not sure the Japanese interact with each other very well, let alone with a gaijin with a less than fluent command of the language.

You are right that the Japanese are always very busy - which means they dont have enough time to spend with friends or just generally relaxing - and no, going to work for 12 hours a day, then going and getting completely hammered, vomiting on the train on the way back then getting up the next day only to repeat the whole process once again, is not a attractive prospect in the long term from a western perspective.

A lot of the drinking and eating establishments, while ok-ish on their own terms, generally tend to end up looking all the same bland homogenous types after a while.

Sightseeing is negligible and will actually end up frustrating you more when you realise that the stuff that you do go and see is actually rubbish - better off not even trying!

But hey, maybe that's the way the Japanese like it? The trade off for this blandness is that everything runs super-smoothly - not really a price worth paying in my opinion.

Certainly the worst mistake my wife ever made after she came to live in England from Tokyo was start working for a Japanese company - I can assure you the 12-hour shifts is a Japanese import that is well and truly alive in London!

Posted by i-cee at 2006/05/29 11:43:58.

Comment 6

My experience might be biased, but I loved my time in Japan, a full year spent in Tokyo as a student. And believe it or not, I love it now when I go there for work. I-Cee said it all, it's about how much you want to integrate that makes the experience different. I wanted to try to live Japanese as much as I could, and believe it or not now I have a lot of friends, I have had a great time and it helped for my Japanese degree too... From our last meeting it was clear that you were feeling a "fish outside water", but on the other side it seems to me that you are taking a great pride in not wanting to mix, almost as if it's the wrong thing to do. You work in an environment that doesn't help you in feeling different of course, as you can get away with speaking english, at home Chie can speak english and language is the first thing that will get you more integrated...

In any case you have tried and if you feel that you wanna go back now I think that at least you have given it all your best shots.

Posted by Lox at 2006/05/29 13:51:30.

Comment 7

i-cee: I am interested - so you have obviously spent some time in Japan, but by the sounds of things have now returned to Blighty...? How long ago were you in Japan, and how long for? On balance are you happier being back in the UK? ...and you mention a wife, Japanese it seems...? Is she now in the UK too? Is she happier there or did she prefer Japan?

Posted by John at 2006/05/29 14:30:18.

Comment 8

Sheri: I've occasionally considered committing a minor crime - you know, the sort that would just get you deported. Maybe just defacing a public building or something... It sounds so wonderfully easy - rather than have to give everyone a long winded explanation as to why I've decided to leave, I'd just be whisked off by the authorities, never allowed to return.

...but, and call me boring here, the ones involving prison sentences in Japan do not appeal!

Posted by John at 2006/05/29 14:35:51.

Comment 9

Well since you asked for my life story, John......

I was working for a bank in Tokyo for about 2 years from 2001-2003 - that was the most I could handle to be honest, for the reasons that i have outlined above. It seemed like it was compulsory to work ludicrous hours, and you were obliged to go out and get wasted at least 4 times a week. I was a walking zombie most of the time, to tell you the truth!

I was sent out there with the promise of a transfer back if I didn't like it. Except it didn't work out that way - I had to resign in the end as they wanted me to stay in Tokyo. The money was nothing special either - certainly no more than I was getting in London - although they did pay for a flat (no bigger than yours though), in Setagaya.

In between I met my wife, who as you rightly supposed, is a Japanese. She was working for a Japanese bank - and was perfectly accustomed to the 12 hour shifts - and hated it as much as I did.

We got married, I quit the bank - and we returned to London (funny you mention Hampstead, for we now live very close by in East Finchley now, and go there every weekend, although I was born and raised south of the river, in Wimbledon).

I found a new job in London, and so did my wife - for a trading company. I get home at 6 p.m. every day, and although she was quite adamant that the excessive working hours were something she really hated, she soon found herself back into the "old routine", and even now regularly returns home at 10 p.m. Why? Because the Japanese have the group mentality - if one person stays back late - they all have to! Fair enough she gets paid overtime for it - but surely there has to be some semblance of life/work balance?

Nevertheless, I think she is happier here in London - I know I am!

Posted by i-cee at 2006/05/29 15:54:08.

Comment 10

I-cee: Working late is pretty common in Japan as you rightly point out, although there are a lot of companies that are (slowly) changing stance. I have recently had a massive discussion with this client, he is the president of this huge corporation and he said that people feel obliged to stay if he's in the office... He needed to send out a lot of "official documents" to the staff asking to leave as soon as the work was finished. Now his staff is very happy and the produce a lot more in less time. Japanese people are like us, they like their free time and they are slowly changing their approach to work (at least that's the way I feel when I go there...). Of course it's gonna take time for things to change radically, but it's a start....

Posted by Lox at 2006/05/29 16:30:02.

Comment 11

To be honest Lox, you are being very optimistic about the pace of change in attitudes. I should point out that I was there for 3 months towards the end of last year. In my less optimistic moods I can compare it to nothing less than watching paint dry!

Posted by i-cee at 2006/05/29 16:44:18.

Comment 12

I-cee: Welllllll you are right I suppose, Japan (a bit like Italy) is a place where sudden changes are not welcomed.. Still I can see something stirring in the background there.. What type of company are you working in at the moment? Is it a major merchant bank or a smaller entity?

Posted by Lox at 2006/05/29 21:40:11.

Comment 13

Lox interesting comparison with Italy. I have friends who live in Sicily - I would not say Japan's situation is anywhere near as serious as it is there, but there are some similarities.

As for my job, I worked for an investment bank in Tokyo - Morgan Grenfell - you have probably heard of it I guess. But I work for another bank now in London. Maybe I'll go back to Japan one day for longer but I doubt it - I'm happy in London and so is my wife (despite her long working hours) :)

Posted by i-cee at 2006/05/29 22:51:24.

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