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The Move

In the study of Japanese culture, there are many paths to enlightenment. Read a book, ride a train, date a Japanese co-ed, spend the night in a hospital, have a child (or at least be in the vicinity of, or share responsibility for, said event). I've done all of these things (the dating before marriage, the hospital and baby after; none of these three activities being even remotely connected). So I suppose I am somewhat of an authority on the culture, at least as it relates to the small corner in which I occupy. However, these methods of learning pale in comparison to moving. Not to the country but within the country. I came to this conclusion reluctantly and painfully.

We decided to move. Or, rather, our landlord helped us decide by putting our house up for sale. In America, the land of the free, you scan the ads, make a few phone calls, visit suitable prospects, commit and move. It is a self-driven process, relatively efficient and generally transparent. In Japan it is different, primarily due to the fact that real estate agents sit in the middle of the transaction and manage to extract their pound of flesh while providing in exchange an additional level of obfuscation to an already confusing process. Moreover, it is expensive. Moving is expensive anywhere, but in Tokyo a move might tempt bankruptcy. In addition to high monthly rents, move-in costs include: first and last month's rent, 2 month's deposit (rarely returned without a fight), 1 month commission to the agent and 1-2 months of "Key Money" to the landlord - an extortionate fee ostensibly meant to thank the landlord for the privilege of renting (I thought this was what rent was for).

Attempt I: Rent vs. Buy

Initially we thought that perhaps buying would be the smarter choice since funds might better be used as a down payment on a home. However, buying has its own issues, including the fact that homes here depreciate in value. After 15 years, the value of a house is solely determined by the value of the thin slice of land it sits upon. This presents interesting opportunities for those willing to buy older homes. However, since owners do not view their house as an investment, there is little incentive to pay for quality construction initially or to renovate periodically over the years. "Scary" is probably an accurate term for houses that were in our price range. Discouraged, we ultimately abandon this strategy.

Attempt 2: The Internet

Having failed in Attempt I, I resign myself to renting and begin an online search for suitable candidates. As an aside, higher-end apartments are referred to as "mansions" in Japanese - an ironic choice of words meant to imply quality and spaciousness but instead emphasizing the difference in perception between cultures on just what constitutes "spacious." Finding a possible fit, I contact the listed agent. We visit the mansion, see that it suits our needs, apply and, following a series of discussions and negotiations, are finally accepted. We inform our landlord and make plans to move. Then, post-acceptance, we are abruptly rejected via a terse email from the agent stating that the owner refused to provide a reason for the reversal. We consult with several friends and the consensus is that this is code for: "You are a foreigner who made it past our first line of defense with a Japanese last name and were belatedly found out." Unfortunately, rejection due to "foreignness" is a not uncommon occurrence; likely illegal; certainly demoralizing. If they only knew how hard we work at fitting in! Any of our current neighbors can attest to our ability to distinguish between burnable and unburnable garbage days, pass around the informational folder that goes from house to house, attend neighborhood block meetings and generally act as much a part of the community as anyone. In point of fact, if I do say so myself, we are excellent cultural ambassadors. So I comfort myself that it is their loss and move on. The agent, annoyingly and consistently persistent until this point, never contacts us again.

Attempt 3: The Connection

By now we are getting desperate. Our lease is close to expiration, prospective buyers are dropping by our house in increasing frequency and boxes are starting to pile up as we pack for a move that has no end destination. Reluctantly, I speak with our landlord and ask whether we could stay if they raised our rent ("please raise our rent" not being words often spoken by a tenant). He asks that we "work more diligently" at finding another place. Smarter this time around, I prevail upon my boss to call a senior executive he knows at an international real estate firm. Connections are everything. Soon I receive a call from the head of the regional affiliate and the following weekend we locate a mansion, apply, and are almost immediately accepted. Not wanting to leave anything to chance, I wire the required funds to the real estate agency, under the theory that cash in hand is hard to return. At this point, my direct interaction with the agent ends. We have a final meeting where he thanks me for my business and gives me a gift - a box of Saran plastic wrap emblazoned with the company's logo. Usually in this situation, a customer is given tissue paper. I suppose he is trying to be more up-market.

I set my sights now on the next task at hand: address changes.

City Office

Wanting to stay ahead of the curve I set off for the local city office to inform them of my change of address. I wouldn't want the Emperor to lose track of me! My first stop is Foreign Affairs. The clerk looks at my application and sees that the date noted is the following day. "Sorry, you can't notify us of a change of address until the change has already occurred." I thought I was being proactive and punctual and try to reason with the clerk. He rejects my logic. "I can't do anything - the computers don't accept future dates." Steamed, the phrase, "Don't fight city hall" comes to mind as I leave the building. I return the next day. It now not being a future date, both clerk and computer are satisfied and I am granted the address change. I go next to the Educational department. Grace is entering elementary school in April (the start of the school year) and we have been in a panic trying to keep her entrance procedures aligned with our move. Another story for another time. Then, the National Health department. You'd think they would share information rather than force us to go from floor to floor filling out the same forms. Next I must inform the police of my change in address. In Japan one cannot own a car without showing the police proof that you have a parking space. The application requires a hand drawn diagram of the parking spot and map illustrating where it is in relation to the residence. It also requires proof of said residence - the foreigner's card I carry with me. I note a hole in the system - the city office does not ask for proof of residence when issuing the very card the police now require for verification. I also need the official stamp of the owner of the parking lot. It would have been nice to have been given this at the time I signed the contract.. I return to the real estate office where they stamp the form (for $50) and then I trudge back to the police station where I can finally submit the paperwork.

The Landlord

Finally the day has come to meet the landlord. Precisely 2 minutes before the appointed time, I arrive at the landlord's residence. Determined to make a good impression, that morning with my language teacher I had practiced a formal introduction. To seal the deal I also bring a traditional gift (green tea). I ring the door to the mansion (in this case, "mansion" being much closer to the American meaning of the term). I hear a dog start yapping - the high crime rate in Japan has likely trained him to be wary of intruders. A woman's voice loudly scolds the dog. Thus encouraged, the yapping increases in pitch and fervor. I hear the woman approach the door and it begins to rattle. I take a step back in anticipation. The door continues to rattle and the dog has by now worked himself into a tizzy. The woman, flummoxed, cannot for the life of her open the door. She starts apologizing repeatedly as she yanks on the door. I stand on the other side bewildered as to what a proper response should be. Finally, after an eternity of yapping, rattling, scolding and apologizing, all sounds suddenly disappear. I wait for a minute wondering if in the torrent of Japanese the woman might have asked me to come back later. I finally turn to leave just as a little old lady comes rushing around from the side of the house, bowing deeply as she apologizes - I don't think she has stopped apologizing since I first heard her on the other side of the door. By now, all proper phrases have fled to an irretrievable corner of my brain. She hands me the key along with a thick instruction booklet on recycling. In return, I shove the tea at her and flee the scene; both of us likely think our encounter might have gone better. Nonetheless I chalk it up as a success. I have the key, after all.

The Move

Now (almost unbelievably) we can move. Moving in Japan is different from the US. I am reminded of the time in America when the police arrived in the midst of a move to arrest one of the workers on an outstanding warrant. With apologies to the exceptions, American movers are oafs (a friend's term which I find both amusing and accurate). In Japan, oafs need not apply - service is polite, punctual and professional, executed with the precision of a military operation. While you can select the level of service, one could almost hand over keys to the house, stay overnight in a hotel and show up at your new place the next morning for coffee and donuts (or green tea and rice balls). But, having shot my budget at the real estate office, and having already spent several months gradually boxing our belongings, I dial it down and make plans to do most of the packing and unpacking myself. I've learned my lesson and this time solict a recommendation from a friend for a moving company. I arrange the move for the following Saturday. Precisely at 8:00AM, the crew arrives. I open the door and see four precisely attired men. Lined up on the pavement behind them are folded blankets, straps, boxes, bubble wrap and tools. And, filling the narrow street are 4 Tonka Truck-sized moving vans lined bumper to bumper, as tall as they are long. The workers bow to me and come in the house. I note that one of the workers is wearing wooden pink granny clogs - all the easier to get in and out of as he transitions from house to truck and back again. While I would be fine with the wearing of shoes in the house on this last day, a Japanese would no sooner wear shoes in the house than go naked outside.

Christine had planned to take the girls out to a friend's house but the car is boxed in. Fortunately our friend comes over and retrieves the girls so that they are spared the trauma of watching their world as it empties box by box. For the next few hours the movers run in and out of the house, instinctively taking off and putting on their shoes in the entryway. In parallel to this process (because things aren't complicated enough already), I had purchased a full size washer/dryer combo. Delivery was scheduled for moving day. Overoptimistic of my abilities as a handyman, I foolishly ordered it over the internet at a discount. Just as we are heading out to the mansion, I receive a call from the deliveryman informing me of the appliance's arrival and warning me that it will barely fit inside the front door, let alone make it past the entryway. Worried that I had purchased an expensive and large doorstop, I tell one of the workers that I might need a little help. Upon arriving at the mansion, there it is, fully boxed and filling the narrow entryway. Without hesitation, the movers tear into the box and take out the 180 pound unit. They then carefully move and place it in its proper location. Then they spend a full forty minutes puzzling over the obtuse directions, re-routing cables and hooking up various hoses. Finally satisfied, they return to the task at hand and unload the four trucks. Japan excels at service.

Finally, the movers leave. After months of anticipation, we have arrived. Dazed, Christine and I find a spot that isn't occupied by boxes. We collapse on the floor. The girls, drawing from inexhaustible wells of energy, run around and play hide and seek. Eventually Grace, looking worried, walks over to Christine. Gesturing at the boxes stacked from floor to ceiling she asks in a small voice and with the wisdom of a six year old, "Is this the way it's going to be??" Christine and I look at each other, sigh, and start unpacking.

Steve Iijima

February, 2008