Thursday, January 17, 2013

Alma R. H. Reyes

Alma R. H. Reyes

“Look before you leap,
for snakes
among sweet flowers
do creep.”



Welcome to the year of the hissing Snake! We often view the snake as poisonous, dangerous, deceptive, or evil. In fact, in Chinese wisdom, the snake is wise, insightful, determined, willing to sacrifice its possessions, and is often successful in business. It may be emotional and affectionate, but does not show it. Being outwardly vocal and persuasive in its opinions is a striking quality of the snake. It could be exciting, and yet, dark and mysterious. As the saying goes, “a snake easily lurks in the grass.” For those born in 1905, 1917, 1929, 1941, 1953, 1965, 1977, 1989, and 2001, and expecting this year, celebrate a rattling, slivery, and excitable year of high success!


New years are for new beginnings—for many, a new job, a new school, a new project, a new boyfriend, a new marriage (smile), or a new home. In the long years I have lived in Japan, I myself have moved domiciles nine times (!) excluding the two places I lived in outside Japan when I was away for five years. Yes, maybe I was crazy, for moving into apartments or houses in Japan can be a stifling ritual sometimes.

First, in renting a place in Tokyo, you are painstakingly subjected to the disturbing real estate and landlord system of paying 2-months “reikin” (gift or key money that doesn’t return to you), 2-months “shikikin” (deposit that supposedly returns to you after the end of the contract), 1-month broker’s fee, and the first month’s rent. Hence, you need to be prepared with a total of six-month’s rent just for the initial payment. In other cities outside Tokyo, the payment values may differ. In Kyoto, for instance, some real estate agencies charge 3-months reikin and 1-month shikikin, or 4-months shikikin, but zero reikin. The system seems to vary depending on the landlord, whereas in Tokyo, it is relatively standardized. Of course, we all know apartments and houses in Japan are incredibly small-scaled, especially in proportion to the amount of the rent. Studio apartments may range from  ¥70,000 up, while 2-3 bedroom flats can range from ¥100,000 - 200,000 or more, all depending on the building condition, location, close vicinity to the train station, etc. Imagine, for this amount of rent, you can find a place abroad for twice the size. But, then, again, this is Japan, right?

Then, here comes the rituals. We all know how the strict observation of Japanese customs and norms is so delicate in this country. Sometimes, if you miss a single step, or fail to obey the custom in the “proper” Japanese way, you can get ostracized. Ningen kankei (human relation) in Japan can be a very intricate learning process, and can cause friction, stress and harsh social pressure on Japanese and foreigners alike. For instance, the first thing you need to do when you have moved in to your new abode is to prepare small gifts for your immediate neighbors. You are expected to pay a courtesy visit to their homes, introduce yourself with the gift, a bow, and the usual “Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu.” One time, I failed to do this promptly. My neighbor complained to my apartment landlady, and my landlady lectured me to make amends.

In some cases, when you go away on a vacation, leaving your place for a lengthy period of time, it is also an expected custom to inform your immediate neighbors about this, again, with the bow and “Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu.” Then, when you return, it would be better to offer them some “omiyage” gift as a gesture of thanking them for looking after your place (even if they really didn’t do anything). If you live in a compound, the situation can be more demanding. If you hold a home party, you may be expected to invite your immediate neighbors within the compound (just for formality), even if they will most likely decline. It would sound polite to them that you excuse yourself in case your party may make some noise; therefore, asking for pardon in advance. Mendokusai (troublesome) deshou.

How about having trees and plants around your home? Periodically, watch out that the leaves don’t fall off on the property of your neighbor during a harsh typhoon or windy day! One time, I neglected to trim the branches of the trees, and my neighbor came buzzing on my door telling me it was time I look at my trees! For those living in houses, do you know there is a property line around your home, so that anything that stays beyond that line is outside your territory and responsibility? I was told that I cannot station my bicycle on the common pavement where the cars drive through, because that pavement is used by all residents, and is therefore not within my private property line. So, I have to make sure my bike is inside the boundary marking that designates my property. Oh wow. The truth is your neighbors won’t really care. But, observing that pretty, little norm just makes you look more “decent.”

Another custom that I just “love” is when your neighbor is having some home repairs done that may involve pounding on the wall, an electric drill, scaffolding on the exterior, or even the mere smell of paint, he or she will come to you to warn you in an apologetic manner as though the repair job may inconvenience you. When the repair is over, your neighbor will probably come to you again both to apologize and thank you for your patience, and offer you a small gift like fruits, soba noodles, or a piece of cake!

Oh Japan—rules, rules, rules…we live by so many of them! Compared to living abroad, in this country, we have to be more sensitive in giving respect to our neighbors who on the other hand, also demand a high level of expectation from you, whether you’re a Japanese or not. Comfort living in Japan? Good luck! May the Year of the Snake surround you with happy memories for your home, sweet home!

Shin-nen Akemashite Omedeto Gozaimasu!

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