Beyond even the tentacle porn and the panty vending machines, there’s a wealth of weirdness still unknown to the western world. Jack will guide you through this bizarre, wonderful world on his continuing journey.
Today we interview Jack Cane, a former reporter from Ireland, who shed the shackles of the mundane to seek adventure and inspiration in Japan. He now writes his weekly DigiLetter entitled “Your Only Man In Japan” where he points his investigative lens at both broad cultural issues and peculiarities known only to the locals. Beyond even the tentacle porn and the panty vending machines, there’s a wealth of weirdness still unknown to the western world. Jack will guide you through this bizarre, wonderful world on his continuing journey.
DigiLetter: Jack, what inspired you to pursue this particular topic?
Jack Cane: This particular topic. Well, this particular topic is what I live every day, so it’s not exactly a reach. Of course, when living in a foreign country, especially one that is so foreign like Japan, there are huge, huge cultural differences so it’s fascinating. That’s one of the main attractions about living here.
“You need to take whatever necessary steps to achieve that goal. Crush all opposition. Ruthlessly. Annnd yeah, step on anyone who gets in your way.”
DL: How do you achieve success, how do you define success in life?
JC: Success in life? Well, you set yourself a goal. And you should be single-minded about going out there and achieving it. You need to take whatever – this sounds like killing somebody or something – but you need to take whatever necessary steps to achieve that goal. Crush all opposition. Ruthlessly. Annnd yeah, step on anyone who gets in your way.
JC: Kind of like Godzilla, a personal hero of mine.
DL: That being said, how do you envision your reader?
JC: I will mold them to think about Japan the way I think about Japan! No, my hope is for my reader to have a general and keen interest in many areas of Japan and Japanese culture: how Japan works, how Japanese live their daily lives. And of course the more esoteric, the more extraordinary aspects of living here. So I would hope that my reader would be open to learning about Japan. Of course, Japanese culture is a bit of a paradox. It’s well-known abroad and it’s also horribly misrepresented at times. There are some preconceptions that I had, too, when I moved here that just were not the case.
DL: For example?
JC: For example. One thing, Japanese people have sometimes been misrepresented abroad as being slightly robotic. Not so emotional, not so passionate about things, very married to their jobs and their careers and their very specific pursuits. That very much isn’t the case. I’ve found Japanese people to be incredibly inquisitive about the outside world, particularly as I come from quite a small country and usually for most Japanese when I meet them I’m the first person from Ireland that they’ve met. So they’re full of questions about Ireland. Americans – they absorb a lot of American culture. Of course Hollywood movies are shown around the world. But specifically Irish things, they might know Enya’s music for example or Aran sweaters and not much else, so they’re really interested to find out more about the world around them.
DL: Cool. What is your personal motto or do you have, say, an explicitly defined set of values?
JC: I don’t have a motto or a maxim or anything. Values? I don’t know, I’ve pretty normal Judeo-Christian middle class left-wing European values to be honest!
DL: Alright, that’s your motto now.
JC: That’s my motto.
“Japan is a really strange country in that it has this democracy but doesn’t really use it.”
DL: Ok, what are you like outside of work?
JC: What am I like? Hmm. Well if I could talk about my interests for a moment. I studied history and politics and philosophy in college and I’m still very interested in these things. I went on to study journalism, so of course journalism is a great passion of mine. One of the main reasons I came to Japan was the fascinating history here. And the way politics is structured. For example, something that really interests me this week was the mayoral elections in Osaka. I think the turnout for the vote was twenty three and a half percent, which is unbelievable. So I mean Japan is a really strange country in that it has this democracy but doesn’t really use it. For me as a political science student (or former political science student) that’s really fascinating.
In terms of personality, I like to go out a lot. I think in terms of learning a language and of course getting to know people going out is integral so I do go out quite often. I like to try new things, cooking school for example. Any keywords… gregarious, I hope! I think that’s the only word that comes to mind at the moment.
DL: Good word. What specifically makes you one of a kind?
JC: Well, as I mentioned earlier I was a philosophy student. Is anyone one of a kind? Don’t write that.
DL: I’m definitely writing that, no question.
JC: Please at least say that I said don’t print that afterward! I don’t know, I’m a bit like a dog with a bone. If I get something between my teeth I chase after it. It’s a terrible, mangled metaphor, but you understand. I would say that I’m rather driven so I think that feeds into my personality in terms of almost everything I do in terms of sports especially, I’m horribly competitive – I hate to lose at anything. Rock paper scissors…
[Break for some rock paper scissors, Jack loses and lets out a cry of defeat.]
JC: Case in point! So yeah, that’s definitely a good part of my personality: hyper-competitiveness, being driven.
DL: Ok, now a little more close to home. Is there anything distinctly Japanese you can find in Ireland that might surprise people.
JC: There’s one thing I can think off the top of my head. There is a famous museum in Dublin Castle in Ireland called the Chester Beatty Library. Chester Beatty was a wealthy industrialist I think who collected many Asian pieces and he created an Oriental museum – a library – in Dublin Castle, which is still open today. The focus of their exhibits isn’t always Japanese, sometimes Mongol, sometimes Chinese, sometimes Indian. If anyone ever goes to Dublin, I recommend it – it’s a beautiful place to go anyway. Aside from that though, not much. There’re very, very few Japanese people in Ireland. I think, when I was applying for my visa, the Japanese embassy told me there were 600?
“Knife goes in! Guts come out! That’s what Osaka Seafood Concern is all about!”
DL: It’s not a lot. How about food?
JC: Food! Very little. Off the top of my head, I guess you could call it Japan Town, there are three restaurants kind of near each other. (There’s no actual Japan Town.) There’s one which is kind of… it’s famous for karaoke, which is called Ukiyo-e, like the art. The food is… it’s ok, but the karaoke’s quite good. Yamamori is quite nice, but it’s very much a fusion of Western and Japanese cuisine. And then there’s another place on the same street just called “The Izakaya,” and it’s a downstairs kind of restaurant by day, bar by night type. They sell Kirin and sake and those kinds of things. So that’s about the extent of Japanese culture and food – it’s about three restaurants on the same street.
DL: Interesting. So how do the Irish visualize Japan and Japanese? In the states it would be like sushi, anime, ramen, ninjas.
JC: Yeah! Pretty much the same. I’d add to that Godzilla, giant robots, salary men, j-pop – people wouldn’t really know any j-pop, but they’d be cognizant of what j-pop is. Toilets that talk to you. Yeah, basically anything that was in the Simpsons episode where they went to Japan.
DL: Knife goes in! Guts come out! That’s what Osaka Seafood Concern is all about!
JC: Exactly yeah! Oh, gotta watch that again later. But basically to round off this point, in terms of Japanese culture you won’t find much in Ireland, and definitely not anything that you wouldn’t find in mainstream accepted sort of ideas about Japan such as “Oh, sushi! Oh, manga!” There’s nothing specific to Ireland that would give anyone there any reason to think differently.
DL: Ok, so on the same note is there anything from Japan that you would like to import into Ireland?
JC: Food! I mean, Ireland is an island on the edge of an ocean, like Japan. We have a lot of fish. Jesus Christ, the things we could do with fish at home that they do in Japan. If only. If only we knew what the Japanese knew in terms of preparing, in terms of cooking fish. Irish people would be a lot healthier and a lot happier, I think.
“Here they have a whole industry around maid cafes and snack bars just for people to go and have people be nice to them. That’s a job, you know!”
DL: Cool. So what did you know about Japan before plunging in head first.
JC: What did I know about Japan? Well I talked about preconceptions earlier and some of my preconceptions were absolutely right. Some were slightly wrong or slightly off. Others were completely wrong.
DL: You know I have to ask for examples.
JC: Yeah, I know. Well, I mentioned the example about unemotional before. Here they have a whole industry around maid cafes and snack bars just for people to go and have people be nice to them. That’s a job, you know!
DL: Yeah, it’s crazy. So back to your homeland, what do you miss about Ireland?
JC: Ah. Well. A pint of Guinness. Very much so. The two minute wait, the cold black hitting the white glass, oh the pure clean, licking your lips… I sound like a Guinness ad here but it’s true, I miss it terribly. Of course, you know everybody misses family, misses friends, but things that are specific to Ireland that I miss. I really miss brown bread. It’s almost impossible to find in Japan.
Not impossible, but difficult.
DL: What is brown bread?
JC: Just brown bread. All bread in Japan is white bread. It’s soft, it’s sweet, it’s thick, very thick.
DL: You don’t mean like pumpernickel, do you?
JC: Different. Brown bread, like soda bread. It’s very thick and small. A very different taste. It’s not sweet. You don’t eat it in America?
DL: We might, but I don’t know if we call it brown bread.
JC: Well it’s just the color is brown.
DL: Oh. I’ve seen brown bread.
JC: I mean inside, not the crust.
DL: But the only brown bread that comes to mind is pumpernickel. No, there are others. I mean, rye bread’s not really brown. I would kill for some rye bread.
JC: Yeah, we have rye, too. So anyway, brown bread, a pint of Guinness, flat cap… Sorry, I’m just sounding very traditionally Irish here, wearing a flat cap, eating brown bread, and drinking a pint of Guinness. You will see this picture in many places around the world of Irish people. But um, you miss food. I mean, the food in Japan is fantastic, but I do miss Irish milk.
DL: What’s different?
JC: It’s thicker, it’s creamier, it’s home. Ireland’s very famous for dairy, for milk and cheese and beef. You know, good food. Japan is fantastic, but Ireland is quite good, too. Things I don’t miss? Constant rain. The negative attitude of literally everyone you will meet. Everything being late all the bloody time.
DL: How inviting!
JC: Ahh, I’m being a little bit harsh on Ireland. But the constant rain is not a joke, that’s a fact of life. We have a saying in Ireland that we have all four seasons in one day. Everything changes very quickly because of the ocean so, you know, you wake up in the morning it’ll be spitting rain, it’ll be a perfectly fine afternoon, then a cold evening, and then a beautiful, calm night. It’s impossible to know what to wear. Irish people often wear five pairs of trousers just in case. No, that’s a joke. Only four. Does that answer your question?
“Now, as someone who is from Ireland, it’s a little bit strange for a pub just to switch its nationality at the drop of a hat.”
DL: Absolutely. It more than answers my question. So Irish pubs in Japan, yea or nay?
JC: Do you know, I don’t think I’ve been to what you would call a genuinely Irish pub. There is a British pub here I’ve been to a few times – Hosanna. I believe Hosanna used to be an Irish pub, but they switched. Now, as someone who is from Ireland, it’s a little bit strange for a pub just to switch its nationality at the drop of a hat. But, this is Japan so you can do it very easily, I mean the décor’s probably the exact same. While that would be anathema in Ireland, it’s perfectly possible here to switch your nationality. In terms of the Guinness, which is probably the number one question any Irish person traveling to Japan would be interested in, it’s not terrible. I’ve had worse in other countries. It will make you pine for home. It’s not quite right, but it’s a decent stab at it. So, there you go.
DL: Alright. What would you like to change about Japan.
DL: Dangerous question.
JC: It is a dangerous question. The number one thing I’m sure you’re annoyed of me talking about it all the time is cyclists! Cyclists cycling on the footpaths.
DL: Preaching to the choir.
JC: It’s a menace! It’s a disaster! Somebody’s gonna have an eye out. I’m sure many people have eyes out. It’s not only the safety though, it’s the utterly misguided belief that they’re completely in the right and that you ought to dive out of their way. Insouciance, even. That would be the number one thing, but there are a number of things: everybody counting money for you like a child in every restaurant, cafe, and shop. I know why they’re doing it. It comes from a good place, but it’s slightly demeaning or something, you feel a bit like a child. But the bike thing is the number one thing.
“I thought, ‘Jesus, Japan is great. Is everyone going to be like this?’”
DL: We’ll go with the bike thing. Now what kinds of things should foreigners prepare before coming to Japan?
JC: Ahh, I’ve been thinking about this recently because my dad will be visiting next month. I’ll tell a small story if I may. My first night in Japan I spent in Tokyo, and the hotel I was staying in was in Shinagawa, and it had a bar on the 46th floor. So of course I wanted to see the city. And, you know, I was pretty jet-lagged so needed a drink. I went up and I had a beautiful view of night time Tokyo, and I had a couple of drinks and went to leave to go back to my hotel room. And, I made the huge faux pas of tipping. It’s not something I knew about. The poor waiter was mortified! He really didn’t know what he had done to deserve this. I mean, I think it was 1000 yen or something, I really had no idea what I was throwing at him. And he followed me all the way to the elevator, bowing and scraping, wishing me a good night and everything. I thought, “Jesus, Japan is great. Is everyone going to be like this?” It was only about a week later when I was told, “Ohh, we don’t tip. It’s included in the price.” So that was one thing.
DL: So he actually accepted it?
JC: Yeah, he took it. He wasn’t that honest. That’s one thing. Shouting to get attention in restaurants and cafes? Perfectly normal, perfectly acceptable. It’s something that I struggle with, even now. Anyway, I would say that if you’re visiting Japan, bring cash. It’s very difficult to change money in Japan. A whole lot of red tape: you gotta show them your cards and where you live and your address and everything. It takes about half an hour, or maybe just twenty minutes, but it’s a chore. It’s not like other countries. Wear your good socks too, people’ll be seeing a lot of them.
“You must get this 20 yen discount. It’s gonna change your life.”
DL: Is there anything you still can’t comprehend about Japan?
JC: That’s a really good question, actually. Ok, there’s one thing… I can comprehend a little but I don’t understand why people go so crazy for this. Shops near train stations that sell discount tickets. The discount is maybe 20 yen, and yet your friends will freak out if you buy a ticket in the station. It’s like the worst thing you can do. You must get this 20 yen discount. It’s gonna change your life. It’s gonna change your day. Who knows what you might spend it on. I mean, let’s put this into perspective, it buys you jack and shit. It gets you nothing.
DL: And shit?
JC: Jack and shit. Oh, well on a good day. On a good day. Some days just jack.
DL: The taxes just went up so now it’s just… shit.
JC: Now it’s just, yeah. Oh that’s another thing, actually – the tax. Everyone’s freaking out about the tax hike. To put it into perspective, in Ireland we pay 23% tax. On everything. In Europe, everything is high tax. In Japan, tax is going up from 5 to 8% and up another 2% next year I think? So, ok, it is a change. But for example a pack of cigarettes is going up 20 yen. Oh no! Ok sorry, I take it back, the 20 yen? Damn… I just defeated my own argument.
DL: Haha I like how that worked out. Last question for you. Why did you choose the name “Your Only Man In Japan” for your DigiLetter? Is there any special significance that you’d like to share with your readers?
JC: What’s in a name? Maybe certain readers have many men, or indeed women, in Japan. I’m not here to judge! However, I chose “Your Only Man In Japan” because it has a kind of double meaning: the obvious one, that I’m your guy, your correspondent even, but also the Irish slang meaning that comes from the famous Irish writer Flann O’Brien’s poem, “The Workman’s Friend”:
“When things go wrong and will not come right,
Though you do the best you can,
When life looks black as the hour of night,
A pint of plain is your only man.”
I should probably add that a “pint of plain” refers to a pint of stout, or Guinness, so it really is horrifically Irish too. So, we often say something is “your only man” in that it is something you can rely on – for example, “if you’re hungry, a hamburger is your only man.” I hope that my readers can enjoy reading and maybe even find my entries as useful as say… uh, a hamburger.