Who’s afraid?

The black-yellow symbol for radioactivityWhenever I talk about my plan to emigrate to Japan, people get curious. Interestingly, the question I hear most often is: “But, Fukushima – are you not afraid?”

Short answer: Nope.

Long answer: No. But look at this: Where I live right now, the two closest working nuclear plants are about 100 and 150 km away, respectively. If I do move to Kyoto, the nearest nuclear plants will be about 80 and 100 km away, respectively. I don’t think that makes such a big difference, really.

The distance between Kyoto and Fukushima is about 600 km. Of course, that’s not much of a distance for radioactive fallout to cross – just remember Chernobyl in 1986. There, a large part of the fallout travelled as far as Central Europe, that’s more than 1500 km.

The admittedly big problem of Japanese nuclear plants is the frequency of earthquakes in Japan. Every day, somewhere in the country, the earth shakes, more or less. Also the fact that virtually all of their plants are situated near the coast (for cheap and easy access to cooling water, I assume) does nothing to instill a really secure feeling into me, I agree.

Still, let’s not forget that most of the nuclear accidents the world has seen so far had much more profane reasons that earthquakes and tsunami: fires in the plants, operator errors, failures of the cooling system.

So, no, I’m still not afraid. No matter where you live or what you do, there is no absolute safety, no complete danger free zone, that’s the way it is. And in the end only one thing counts: To be scared to death still means to die.

Writing Japanese – Hiragana

Japanese is rather difficult to learn for people who speak a Western language. Part of the difficulty lies in its three distinct scripts for writing (actually it’s four if you include romaji, the Latin alphabet, which is also used):


All of these three, which I will talk about the next few weekends, are freely mixed together in sentences, and although there are some rules when to use which scipt, those can be bent to express slight nuances. While you shouldn’t expect to be able to read everything you may encounter without extensive study, knowing how to decipher some word here and there may come handy. Let’s start with the the script that is – at least in my opinion – easiest to learn:


Hiragana is one of the two Kana scripts used in Japan. It consists of 46 basic characters, 40 of them are syllables (always consonant + vowel), 5 of them are the single vowels A, E, I, O, U (pronounced like in Latin or Spanish, btw), and there is a single symbol for the consonant N. Here is a list of them (empty squares mean they are no longer in use):

Table with Basic Hiragana
Table with Basic Hiragana

Additionally, some diacritic marks are used to add some more consonants:

Table with Hiragana 2
More Hiragana made from the basic ones

and then there are syllables for kya, dyo, … etc. (note that the second part is written slightly smaller)

Basic Hiragana combinations
Combinations of Hiragana

and doubling of consonants are indicated by adding a slightly smaller tsu before the consonant (exception: N, where you simply add the symbol for N).

That does not appear that difficult after all, does it? So, when is Hiragana used?
Hiragana characters are mainly used for:

  • any Japanese words for which there are no Kanji or where the Kanji are obscure (Japanese could be completely written in Hiragana, and in fact, all children’s books are)
  • grammatical elements like verb and adjective inflections (called okurigana), particles, and suffixes.
  • so called furigana, indicating the pronunciation of Kanji, mostly seen in books for children as sub- or superscripts to the Kanji they describe (or in parentheses behind them)

Hiragana have developed from Kanji, and were long considered “women’s writing” when women were not allowed to study the Chinese Kanji. Many works of early Japanese literature have been written in Hiragana, for example the famous “Tale of Genji” by Murasaki Shikibu, or “The Tosa Diary” by Ki No Tsurayuki (a man who pretends to a woman writing the diary). Even today, Hiragana are used instead of Kanji when a non-formal way of writing is desired, or when trying to convey a more warm feeling.

Japan Festival

Sorry for not writing last Saturday, but I was busy. Together with a friend I went to the 5th Japan Festival in the Urania in Berlin.

It was wonderful – wJapan Festival 2013 - Logoe had such a great time! There were two stages with non-stop performances of all kinds: various Japanese martial arts with and without weapons (Aikido, Ju-jutsu, Karate, Iaido, Kendo…), talks and demonstrations of Japanese culture (Anime, Ikebana, Sumi-e…), and music groups (J-Pop, a women’s choir, Taiko drums,…) We have watched several of them, but my favourite was the Taiko group. They were very good, the rhythm electrifying, the whole audience (about 900 people) was excited.

Off the stages were countless booths with Japanese wares, either imported or made by artists in Germany: ceramics, manga, t-shirts, swords and bokken, yukata, tabi, daruma, calligraphy… I really had to force my hands to stay in their pockets, especially as there was such a gorgeous sumi-e of a cat by a German artist…

The place was comparatively small, so it seemed even more crowded that it really was. As in the evening there was a cosplay casting, many people were dressed up in typical attire:  kimono, school girl’s dresses, samurai, young girls with short dresses and crazy hair of all colours – I even saw Sailormoon! Just standing in a corner watching the people would have been completely satisfying.There would have been a small booth to dress up and take a picture, but neither one of us was really excited about doing this.

The only thing I was disappointed about: We couldn’t find the food stalls at first. Very well hidden on the fourth floor – reachable only via some narrow back stairs – were sellers of green tea, sake, sushi, mochi… Unfortunately, by the time we found them, there were no more o-nigiri left, something I really wanted to have and was looking forward to.

Well, only a few more months…

Working issues

I spent last Sunday online looking for employment opportunities in Japan.
The good news: There are plenty of open jobs for foreigners.
The bad news: Unless you’d want to do something else than teaching English…

I’m not good with kids, so I’m not sure a teaching job would be a good fit for me. And also, I’m not an English native, although only “native level” is required for most of those positions. Also, I am confident that my grasp of English grammar – as I had to study it rather painfully – is better than that native’s whom I overheard teaching in Korea once (“We use future progressive to give our speech a more warm and friendly feeling.” Honey, I’ll be believing that when hell is freezing over…)

However, even if you don’t want to teach, there seem to be enough jobs around – but those require rather fluent Japanese, which I don’t think is going to happen within this year.

I could start as a student again. There are student visas permitting up to 20 hours of work per week. But then, I’m not sure I’d want to be a full time student again right now – I believe I’m too old for that – or not old enough? Besides, most classes would be taught in Japanese anyway, and language schools preparing you for university are extremely expensive.

What about being a tour guide? Showing people MY beloved Japan sounds great, no? Well, of course there is an exam for this as well, so you have a basic understanding of the country and the language you want to use, and the exam is – you’ve guessed it – administered in Japanese.

The final good news is that any job I have found so far seems to be very well paid – for Western standards at least. And finding a job may be much easier once I am actually in the country. So I’ve not lost all hope yet, at the start already.

In the worst case, I can always bite the bullet and teach English. Meanwhile, there is always the hope that this blog makes me rich quick… 😉

Chopstick basics

One of the most useful things to know before going to Japan is how to eat with chopsticks. Unlike in China or Korea, where you at least get a spoon for sour or rice, it’s chopsticks only in Japan. (Unless you wish to exclusively eat at the Mos Burger, of course.) Hence, to assure survival, you’ll need at least to know the basics of handling chopsticks, which are:using chopsticks

  1. Take the first chopstick in your hand. It should lie on top of the fingernail of your ring finger. Resist the urge of pressing the tip of the middle finger against the wood!
  2. Take the second chopstick like a pen in your first three fingers. You should be able to move it relatively freely.
  3. Although you have a pair of chopsticks, only the upper one moves, essentially up-and-down towards the lower one.

Tips for beginners:
Relaxing your hand and fingers makes using chopsticks more easy. Or so I’ve heard…
Don’t use your chopsticks as pointing devices or skewers.
Never stick them into the rice in an upright position – this is how offering to the dead are made.

There are plenty of other rules on using chopsticks – as for everything else in Japan – I may write about those later. You’ll need a lot of practice until you can eat with them, don’t get disheartened. Even Asians can have a hard time eating slippery or soft food like tofu drowned in sauce!

Good luck!

Planning Stages

Moving to a new country, nay, a new life even, requires some serious thoughts and planning.
Unless you are of the extremely adventurous persuasion, who can move anywhere with only a carry-on and a week’s notice, of course.
In my age, however, I need somewhat more security, so here is a list of things that require some thinking and research beforehand.

Living arrangements

Japan is obvious, but which region and city? I have visited many cities in Japan, from Otaru in Hokkaido to Fukuoka in Kyushu. I have seen Hiroshima, Tokyo, Sendai, Niigata… but none of those places have fascinated me as much as Kyoto. It is wonderful with its mixture of traditional and modern Japan, and with about 1.5 million inhabitants it’s tiny for Asian standards – especially when compared to the moloch of Tokyo. Also I hope that in Kyoto, being a center of touristic activities, it may be a good place for foreigners seeking work.


That is the next thing to worry about. I will need a work visa to be able to work in Japan, to be able to open a bank account, etc. This means I will need a job, preferrable before moving there. That, however, is the tricky thing, as so far I have only decided that I need a change of career, but not to which one. Apparently, there are many foreigners living and working in Japan illegaly on a 90 days tourist visa, but as I want to build my life there, this is not an option. Some serious soul searching has to follow, and rather quickly at that.


Japanese is a rather diffcult language to learn for a European. Once the japanese writing is mastered – the Hiragana and Katakana – there are still thousands of Kanji – Chinese characters – to learn. Not to mention the grammar, which is completely different from any Western language I’ve ever studied. The simple sentence “I want to go to the library” turns upside down into “Library to go want”, with all the action hidden in the verb at the end of the sentence. I have been learning Japanese on and off for two years now, and it went fairly well in the beginning. However, once I reached the heights of Japanese politeness, with new expressions, vocabulary, and grammatical delicacies, I found myself facing an enourmous roadblock. I will have to invest some serious work here, to not only be able to talk somehow, but to talk politely.


While I would love moving with as few possessions as possible, unfortunately this does not appear to be feasible. My life so far has created an abundance of stuff: family heirlooms, treasured photographs and beloved pieces, practical and useful belongings, in short odds and ends of an existence I am not willing to give up entirely. Of course there is the option of leaving some of those things with well meaning friends and getting them piece by piece, but I think this may only strain the relationship with my friends, and besides, it only postpones the problem. So, I will have to sort through all my belongings one by one to decide what to do with them. Some decisions will be easy: I cannot take any electrical appliances, as electricity in Japan has 110 V only. Others will be hard: I love my books, all 1000 of them… and what about my heirloom china? I have found that it’s easier for me to part with things if they go to a new home where they are used again. I hope I will find many such places for many of my things.


A big move like this one is not possible without some help from outside. So far, I have kept rather quiet about my plans, but sooner or later I will need assistance on various levels. The first thing to do is go to the Japanese embassy to find out about visas and other legal procedures before an immigration. Also, I know quite a few people – both expats and natives – in Japan, although not all of them live close to Kyoto. I want to let them know about my plans, and I will try to overcome my fears and actually ask for help once in a while. Maybe this way, things will go as smoothly as possible. There is one person I would like to ask being my mentor for Japanese culture and customs, but I want to wait with approaching him once I have actually arrived in Japan.

Big plans, long to-do list. I hope I will manage all of this in time…

Japanese Numbers

Before moving to another country, a bit of fact finding is in order. As I like numbers, here are some statistics:

satellite photo of Japan
Japan from Space (courtesy of NASA)

Japan (日本) –  Nihon or Nippon in Japanese – is an archipelago consisting of 6852 islands located between 20° – 43° N and 122° – 153 ° E, comprising a total area of 377.915 sqare km. The four main islands are (from North to South) Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu. The climate is mostly temperate, but obviously there is large variation between the humid continental of the North and the subtropical of the southern islands. The temperatures average between 5.1 °C (winter) and 25.2 °C (summer), the highest ever recorded lay at 40.7 °C. Japan has a rainy season from May (South) to July (North), and there are numerous typhoons in the autumn.

Japan has more than 127.000.000 inhabitants, which makes it the 10th most populated country in the world. About 13.000.000 Japanese live in the capital city Tokyo (東京),  and counting the larger Tokyo Metropolitan Area, it’s more than 35.000.000, giving the area a densitiy of about 2600 people per square km. However, this is going to change, as the population growth is negative at -0.077%, with a birth rate of only 8.39 per 1000 population (217th in the world), and a death rate of 9.15 per 1000.

The country has been inhabited since the paleolithic, about 30.000 BCE. The feudal era is problably the best known outside of Japan, starting with the emergence of the samurai class about 1200 CE, and ending with the Meiji restoration in 1868. Today, Japan is technically a constitutional monarchy, but the emperor (currently: Akihito) has very little actual power.

Both China and Korea have had a great influence on Japan’s culture, but many of those cultural imports have received a quite specific Japanese twist – just think of Zen Buddhism. Once again, the feudal era gave rise to many of the pastimes and arts so admired abroad, like the tea ceremony, ikebana, and martial arts; but also wooden dolls, painted kimonos, and the whole entertainment culture of the Geisha.

Japan is the third largest economy in the world, and hence, one of the G8 states; and that despite the fact that it has very little natural resources and is the 4th largest importer of crude oil. Most of its electricity (63%) is generated using fossil fuels, and also nuclear power goes strong here (17%). The gross domestic product per capita is 34,700 US$, currently shrinking at -0.8%.

Its work force comprises about 66.000.000 people, the majority of 70% working in the services sector, and only 3.8% in agriculture – that’s even less than the unemployment rate of 4.6%. Anyway, industries abound in Japan, especially for highly advanced products like cars and electronics, but also chemical substances and processed foods. Clearly this goes along with (fundamental) scientific research – there are about 700.000 researchers with a total budget of 130 billion US$, the third largest in the world.

There are 1.200.000 km of paved road in Japan, but still, driving makes up for only about 50% of the distance traveled. Another major means of transport is the railway, with 27.182 kilometers of rail in total, and 250 shinkansen bullet trains connecting the major cities. There are several regional companies all over Japan and dozens of small railway companies around the major cities. Only 9 cities have a metro system, but there are buses available everywhere. There are 173 airports in Japan, with the second busiest in all Asia being Tokyo-Haneda, and the largest Tokyo-Narita. Finally, lots of ferries connect the islands – especially the smaller ones – on 1770 kilometers of waterways, with the largest port in Nagoya.

Small Beginnings

This is the year when it will happen.

So long wished for, so long imagined.

No more.

No more wishful thinking, no more unfulfilled dreams, no more imaginary life.

Flags of Austria and Japan
From Austria to Japan

This year I will make it real.

I will move to Japan.


This year will bring the biggest change I have ever made. At this point, my future is uncertain. All that is certain are the things I will leave behind: My country, my friends, my career, in short: my life as I have lived it so far.

And for what?

For Japan.

What does that mean?

I don’t know. All I do know is that of all the countries I have lived in (5) and have visited (14), it calls to me the loudest. All of it – country, people, culture – and still nothing, because I have no words to describe what it is that pulls me in. It’s like a maelstrom I cannot fight, and as I have now decided to stop resisting, all I can hope is that it will not spit me out again.

This is my declaration.

These are my plans.

This is my journey.

It starts now.