This year, we had a gathering with all my mum's siblings. Since they all live in different countries, it's a rare treat to have them all together in one place.
Let's have a look at some of the things we saw this year in Kaohsiung!
In a few days, it will be my two-year Japanniversary. Two years since I arrived in Japan and moved into my apartment in Shinjuku. I’ve had good times in the little place in the centre of town, but there are some big drawbacks to living in such a convenient place. First, my apartment is expensive but small – I only have a mini-fridge and a single hob, with no food preparation area. Second, Shinjuku gets a little too busy for comfort, especially on weekends. And lastly, the most important thing – in Tokyo, there’s an annoying system where if you stay in an apartment for 2 years, you get charged a ‘renewal fee’, or double rent for one month. No thank you!
Last year, my grandmother passed away. She was a real character and I miss her presence in my life, especially when Christmas comes. She had enough savings squirreled away that when it was distributed between family members, it became a possibility that I could buy a cheap house in Japan. I’ve been working in Japan since I arrived, with several sidelines like proofreading and random TV work, plus made some well-timed investments into Cryptocurrency, so for the first time in my life, I’m ready to get onto the property ladder. Thank you, Grandma!
Buying in Japan is in some ways surprisingly simple, and in others surprisingly difficult. Firstly, there are no legal restrictions on foreigners buying property, which makes sense when you consider that the Japanese economy will benefit from foreign investment, especially from China. On the other hand, someone like me who has been here for just two years on a working visa, unmarried and with an uneven income, has no chance of getting a mortgage. So while it was possible to buy a place, I couldn’t look at anything very luxurious that I would ordinarily fund with a mortgage.
On the other hand, I feel that if possible, buying outright is a much better investment choice. The debates between buying or renting largely revolve around whether mortgage interest repayments are effectively the same as renting anyway, with various inconveniences. Buying outright has very few disadvantages in investment terms.
So I began the property search. Helpfully, there are various agents in Japan that are eager to help foreign-language buyers, especially in English or Chinese. My Japanese is getting…passable by this stage, but I didn’t feel prepared to deal with the complexities of contract negotiation without someone to interpret! I found various agencies who were helpful, but ultimately a relatively new company called Beyond Borders was most helpful, bilingual agent Mori-san having been very helpful and accommodating throughout the process.
I started out by looking at apartments near where I was living, but didn’t fall in love with any of them. Everything changed when I viewed a house a little further out from the city, in Koenji. It was a great little property by the side of a river – and it reminded me that buying land is far better than an apartment in Japan, where property depreciates but land holds its value.
I made a bid on the house. In fact, I was the highest bidder. Sadly, the seller thought that dealing with a foreigner was too scary and turned down my bid. In other countries, this might be illegal on grounds of discrimination, but there’s no protection against this kind of decision in Japan. Whether renting or buying, watching out for ‘no dogs, no gaijin’-style messages is a necessity. I was angry at the time, but it’s the current social reality here.
That experience totally changed what I wanted in my property search, though. I had been putting price first, then location, with size last. I realised I would be happier commuting for a longer time every day if I could get a much bigger place. That’s why I decided on Edogawa, where land prices are cheap but the trainlines are well-connected. Plus there’s a famous fireworks festival there every summer, and it’s halfway to the airport. I made sure to look for places on relatively high ground because Edogawa is at risk of flooding, and eventually found a house that was big, sturdy, but because the road approaching it is too narrow, cannot be completely rebuilt – something that in Japan sends the property price tumbling. I can reinforce it against earthquakes, even entirely rebuild the structure within the same blueprint, but can’t tear it down and build something new. If a natural disaster completely destroys it, I’ll be in trouble, but that’s a risk I decided to take.
The actual process of buying has not been straightforward. Japan has a lot of odd traditions connected to buying property. For example, the 10% deposit at the beginning of negotiations has to be made in cash. For my house that was a fair wad of banknotes, but I imagine luxury apartments in the city centre must involve briefcases full of them. It’s lucky Japan has such low crime rates, because that’s a very risky system!
I also had to have a jitsu-in, an officially-registered wooden seal, made in my name. This was surprisingly fast and inexpensive, and it’s probable that it would be waived in most sales to foreigners, especially those who don’t even enter the country for negotiations, but it was something of an oddity.
Now, I’m waiting to move in. Unfortunately, the seller can’t hand the property over in good faith until the land has been surveyed, and it’s taken a very long time to schedule that survey. But it’s finally around the corner, my belongings are all packed, and all that remains is the final settlement – which will be slightly surreal. The seller, her agent, my agent and me will all gather in a bank, where I will make a transfer to the seller and a transfer to my agent under the watchful eyes of everyone involved. Then comes registration, connecting utilities, getting insurance and all the other necessities.
It hasn’t been a simple process, and there have been some big bumps along the road, but I’m about to move in and get decorating. Frankly, I can’t wait!
Though many good things happened in my professional life, the past year has been a sad one for my family. My aunt died much too young in November, 2015 and then last month her mother, my grandmother, also passed away. By unfortunate coincidence, both were while I was in Japan, and at times I was unable to return to England to attend their funerals, so I haven’t honestly been able to feel I’ve had a chance to pay my respects or fully reflect on their lives. Next month, I’ll be returning to England, and will be able to visit their graves, but fortunately there was also a memorial event for my aunt yesterday in Tokyo University.
My aunt was a prominent scholar of French literature and had attended a number of academic conferences here in Japan, as well as hosting many Japanese scholars who were interested in visiting the Samuel Beckett archives at Reading University. So her kind friends and colleagues over here in Tokyo arranged a memorial day, in conjunction with a memorial symposium a year after her death over in England. Since I’m living in Tokyo, it made sense for me to attend and deliver a message from my uncle, giving me a chance to pay my respects.
My hosts set up a lovely event. This was my first time in the University of Tokyo, and the Komaba campus is small and pretty. After finding the correct building, I was led to a room full of scholars, some young but most older, with the somewhat languid air of lifelong academics. Most were Japanese, though there was one other Westerner, another Brit named David whose life, it seems, was intertwined with my aunt’s right from their undergraduate days.
I was greeted very warmly, and though the event was in a typical academic meeting room, there was a smiling photograph of my aunt, a display of her books and pretty floral displays.
The opening memorial service was touching. Friends of my aunt from her academic circle ran through her biography, and then gave their personal reminiscences, often with photographs - both of her visits to Japan and their visits to England. They found a particular significance and comfort in her last words being, ‘It’s exciting.’ I was invited to read my uncle’s message, which was received with appreciation, and later had a chance to give my own account, centred on memories of the family gathering at Christmastime. Even though I was in a room of strangers, we were all connected through my aunt, so I was grateful to have such a chance to pay my respects.
This was followed by an academic symposium responding to my aunt’s legacy. Admittedly, while I could follow the personal reminiscences, which other than my own had all been in Japanese, when it came to academic vocabulary and analysis I was mostly lost, really only able to follow one lecture on Samuel Beckett and Music. Nonetheless, I was pleased to be part of the event.
Next, we went to nearby Shibuya to enjoy a meal in my aunt’s honour. As is traditional after a symposium, we went to an izakaya, a Japanese restaurant where the emphasis is on drinking, and my hosts had selected Gonpachi. Gonpachi is a famous chain in Japan with very traditional décor, a different branch made particularly famous recently as a location in Quentin Tarantino’s movie Kill Bill. We had a private room where we enjoyed an extended ‘Nabe course’, which culminated in a hot pot but mostly delighted me with the smaller dishes that came first – delicious sashimi, large korroke and a kind of Chinese-style dish slightly reminiscent of hairy prawns. It was a superb meal, accompanied by plenty of beer with which to toast my aunt.
I didn’t speak much Japanese that evening, as I sat with David and listened to his stories about my aunt and his own interesting career. Like me, he studied at Cambridge, plays in a band and has a keen interest in progressive rock. I learned alot about Samuel Beckett, particularly regarding his interest in sport, and felt quite emboldened to be able to talk about my thesis for the first time since finishing it, as well as my book. I am grateful I had a chance to meet such an interesting group of people, and this was really my first time interacting with academia in Tokyo, so I feel quite grateful to have had the opportunity.
I’m not sure if I will ever return to the university, or see any of the other campuses, but who knows? Perhaps in the future I’ll be able to return.