Admittedly it has been 23 years since I was last in Tokyo and my memory is a little foggy, but I have noticed some changes since I was there last. I’m sure there are noticeable changes in ANY society is 23 years, but the ones I remember are things that were always curious or different or noteworthy to me, even back in the day.
Smoking: Tokyo used to be one big smoke pit. Not only was it legal to smoke everywhere (as I’m sure it was in many places in 1991), but it seemed like more people smoked. It is still legal to smoke outdoors but only in designated and gated-off smoking areas. There doesn’t seem to be any public indoor smoking areas that I saw, but I’m not completely ruling it out. There is still smoking allowed in many restaurants and it seems that many people will still smoke…even right under the non-smoking sign.
Booze in vending machines: Sadly this is no longer the case. Apparently the law was changed to help reduce underage drinking. I have fond memories of the various booze dispensing vending machines in my old neighbourhoods. Of particular note was the vodka machine. It sold only vodka (can’t remember if it was Russian or Japanese but I’m thinking Russian) in a veritable plethora of sizes ranging from airplane miniatures to a large plastic jug with a handle. It was quite affordable and eminently drinkable. There were also many machines that sold beer–brand specific or just any type of beer–and sake in jars, bottles, cans (heated or cold) and casks. Magnificently convenient though I do understand why they had to stop this practice. You can now buy alcohol at any convenience store or grocery store. The only form of ID is that you must tap a button on a touch screen acknowledging that you are at least 20 years old. I can’t help but wonder if the Japanese are too polite to question you…especially if you’re a foreigner.
Height: The overall average height of the Japanese people has risen significantly in my experience. Or else I’ve gotten shorter which is also a distinct possibility. Regardless, people are taller. When I was here last, I went to galleries and museums at least once a week. The crowds never bothered me as even if they were five people deep, I could always see over everyone’s head. No, I didn’t wear heels. I am still taller than the majority of women but not all the men anymore. I also saw some distinctly tall children. Very few overweight people though. I suspect this is because most people have to walk or bicycle every day. I’m finding my car and driving to be painful. I miss walking, even if it was 40 degrees.
English: There is MUCH more English spoken and written now. In the subway and on the trains, most signs are in English and on the major subway and JR lines, all the station announcements are also made in English. This makes life MUCH easier. There seem to be more English speakers around as well. Japanese students all study English beginning in high school but they are taught only to pass an exam and often by non-native speakers. They have impressive grammar skills but lack the ability to converse. This seems to still be the case as most of the people I had conversations with learned their English abroad.
Costs: I was in Japan just before the economy really and truly dumped. It was still the land of milk and honey. I made ridiculous amounts of money as a hostess ($500/night for about 4 hours and 45 minutes work) and as an English teacher ($75/hour up to 8 hours per day). No, I didn’t do anything morally suspect as a hostess unless you count bad karaoke–we weren’t allowed to drink, smoke, eat or cross our legs. If you were up for doing anything morally suspect you could make huge amounts of cash. I brought home enough money to pay for university AND to fund school in the south of France and travel around Europe the following summer. Things were expensive though and I saved money my last six months by working 6 days a week so I didn’t have time to spend anything. Food and lodging were more expensive in 1991 than I paid in summer 2014. Clothing was actually cheaper in many cases this time around as we were there during the sales. Some of the best stationery products in the world are significantly cheaper and heaps better than what we can get in Canada. It goes without saying that green tea–matcha powder which I pay $10 for a small package–is much cheaper. Even Haagen-Dazs ice cream is cheaper. I looked at a few real estate papers and it seems that house prices are down…still really expensive, but that old urban myth about crumpling up a US$100 bill as small as you can and dropping it on the floor in Ginza and having it represent the actual value of the tiny bit of space it covered seems to not be the case anymore. Despite all the news to the contrary, the economy on the surface is still functioning as the sheer number and variety of consumer goods available is mind-boggling.