Tokyo lacks sane consumer market, fire safety

TOKYO – Now that I’ve passed the halfway point of my stay in Japan and have more time behind me than ahead, I thought I’d take some time to reflect on some things. You learn

TOKYO – Now that I’ve passed the halfway point of my stay in Japan and have more time behind me than ahead, I thought I’d take some time to reflect on some things. You learn a lot more studying abroad than just about your host city and country. You also learn about your home country, and possibly yourself.

The first time I studied in Japan, during a 2008 summer session, I didn’t really learn much. It went so fast, and I was trying to fit so much in, that it was all a blur. I skimmed the surface for a little less than a month and then went home.

With more time and at a more leisurely pace, I’ve started to become aware of places and issues I couldn’t have before in my earlier visit.

For example, the Japanese consumer market is weird. I find, more often than back in the States, prices don’t make a lot of sense. As a big Japanese music fan, I realized Japanese music was expensive – more than $30 per CD – but now I know (and hate) that many Japanese stores would rather let a CD sit on a shelf for 10 years than cut the price, even if it’s an obscure CD that might never sell at that price – ever. Maybe they are waiting for them to become antique collectibles.


Far more disconcerting is that fire safety seems to be an unfamiliar concept. In a city that has been burned down, blown up and rocked by earthquakes, there are stores with deliberately hard-to-find exits, stuff stacked on the stairs for storage and a strong lack of fire escapes.

Don Quijote – basically a whole Kmart crammed into one-third of the space – decided the middle of the front door was a good place to squeeze some racks of Halloween costumes. I had to physically push my way out on my last visit. Three people died after an arsonist set a few stores on fire in December 2004, but apparently they haven’t felt the need to change anything.

I’ve also found some amazing things that English tour-books seem to have totally overlooked. For instance, Arasaki, Kanagawa, is one of the most gorgeous coastlines, where one can watch the sun set beside Mount Fuji.
It’s only an hour-and-a-half away from Tokyo, but it was rather quiet on my visit. It’s definitely a hidden treasure; it doesn’t even have an English Wikipedia page. I already spoke of the neglected north island of Hokkaido two columns ago. Those who come here to study should keep their eyes peeled above the tour guides and dig deep on the Internet – there are many fantastic secrets to find.

As for the home front, I’ve realized that regardless of how awesome as it is to live in the Northeast United States, I still didn’t appreciate it as much as I could.

Main Campus students, if you don’t realize how amazing it is to live in real, honest multiculturalism, take a step back, and think about it. For one thing, the variety of food you can get in Philadelphia blows even Tokyo out of the water. It’s strange not being able to choose from cheeses and meats from all over the world.

Going away is also a good way to figure out who your friends are. It’s a little bit of a shock when you leave for half a year, and some people you considered friends don’t even shoot you a message to say, “Hey.” It’s good to know, though, which friends consider you valuable and thus, are worth your time in return.

I wonder what it’s going to be like when I return and try to jump back into my social circles. I’ll be a half a year behind on inside jokes and gossip. I feel kind of sorry for people who come here for a long time to work or study. I still feel a little disconnected after a few months – I wouldn’t want to come back after three or four years. It makes me wonder if my dream of globe-trotting would be so wonderful after all.

Don’t take this to mean I don’t like it in Japan. Tokyo is a fantastic place. I love it here, and if I got a job offer here, I’d seriously consider it. I wish I had space to go into the little things one notices when surroundings change. Look at your own college experience. Unless you are directly from the city limits, you’ve probably realized things about home, and about Philly, you may never have otherwise picked up.

Lee Miller can be reached at

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