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Feature - A land of paradoxes and reminders

A Whistler writer discovers the people and the customs in the land of the rising sun

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Today, Japan must be one of the safest places left on this planet. One of my colleagues, a teacher from New Zealand, hasn’t locked her door in the three years she’s been here. People leave their car keys in the ignition while they go grocery shopping. I had an elderly lady follow me with a small coin I had dropped on the ground; she wanted to make sure I got it back.

Whenever I first arrive to a new country, I always feel quite vulnerable until I have the money sorted out and get my bearings as to where I’m going and how to get around. In Japan a huge amount of stress is eliminated because you know that you’re not going to be taken advantage of with every transaction you make. It’s so refreshing.

Fukui is a small city of 252,000, and I’m told safety is not the same in the big cities. However, integrity, honour and a rigid social etiquette are rooted deeply in the Japanese psyche.

On the wrong side

One of the biggest challenges I faced when I first arrived was learning to drive on the left hand side of the road. This job demands that I have a car. Part of the school’s service is bringing English lessons to outer areas up in the mountains and to local community centres. I was blessed to have a car given to me by a departing teacher from New York City.

Japan has extremely strict safety inspection laws on all automobiles. Once a car is three years old, it must go through a safety inspection, a "shaken", every two years after. The shaken costs a fortune, approximately Y100,000, ($1,250). As a result, there aren’t too many old cars on the road.

I asked one of my Japanese friends what happens to all the used cars?

His answer: "For years Russians, and car dealers from the developing world, have come to Japan to buy the used cars. Then they ship them to their countries and sell them. It’s a huge market."

The day came when I had to apply for my Japanese driver’s licence. A Japanese friend took me through the process. First we had to go to one office, on one side of town, and pay Y3,000, ($37.50) to buy the translated version of the exam. Then we drove to another part of the city where the city’s testing site is located. He told me not to worry, that the test is easy.