I LOVE Japan.
I’ve lived here for nine years, so considering I’m 36 years old, that’s most of my adult life. For those that knew me before I was 25, I’m sure they would suggest it’s virtually all of my adult life. I love the people, the way they give 100 per cent in everything they do, their respectfulness, diligence, thoughtfulness and their sense of style. One aspect of Japan that has struck me, as I’m sure it has many visitors, is the contradictions in society. I can gaze at the Fuji Television building (right)in Tokyo in awe of the architecture and construction that is so futuristic it makes me feel like I’m in a scene from The Jetsons, and then I return home to find the insulation on my house is so poor that it’s colder inside than it is outside; in summer it’s hotter inside than out. I can go to a juice bar and ask where the bathroom is and the attendant will run out from behind the counter and escort me there. Then I’ll go back and ask for a glass of carrot and apple juice and be told that I can have a glass of apple, or a glass of carrot, but there is no way I’ll be getting a carrot and apple as it’s not on the menu. Some aspects of Japanese medicine is world- leading, but it is still standard practice in many hospitals to put ACL rupture in plaster-casts or back slabs for several weeks, a practice that has been eschewed by Western medicine for decades due to the difficulty in rehabbing the atrophied and stiff knee after the cast is removed.
As a physiotherapist, one of my interest areas has been in occupational and public health and safety, and in Japan the contradictions in this area are often marked. Japan prides itself on being a ‘safety country’, and in many areas it certainly is. The per-capita rates for murder, rape, serious assault and robbery in Japan are all among the lowest in the world. In a winter ski resort, one of the key issues related to public health and safety is access to the backcountry, and the associated risks, especially avalanches. In Niseko, it is one of the most common topics of conversation around town. The risks related to avalanche are indeed dire, and with so few of the people accessing the area equipped with the experience, equipment or knowledge to deal with the potential risks they face, the risks are amplified. I recently watched Bondi Rescue on Australia Network here in Japan (a reality show following lifeguards’ at work on Bondi Beach). As I watched the lifeguards try to explain to an ambivalent Asian tourist the importance of swimming between the flags, I couldn’t help but compare it to an Australian punter barreling through the gates in Niseko, brushing off the ski patrol’s advice.
Niseko is to be commended for its gate policy, which allows respected experts to decide if the avalanche risk on a particular day is acceptable for the public to enter the backcountry, or not. Many resorts in Japan enforce a strict ‘no off-piste’ policy, making no consideration for the relative safety of one area over another, or daily weather conditions and avalanche risk. In many cases this could be seen as akin to the aforementioned lifeguards permanently fencing off the beaches so people are free to lie on the sand but not enter the water. For many keen backcountry skiers and boarders, this can be particularly frustrating, especially if they have spent a considerable amount of money and effort into getting their turns in fresh powder. If the visitors are bewildered as to the reasons the areas are closed, it can often lead to heated exchanges with ski patrols.
The goal of the resort to protect their guests from harm is an honourable one, however, it must be balanced with the actual danger to the skier or rider. Resorts who favour the ‘absolutely no harm’ policy and totally forbid backcountry access may have root in the owners of ski resorts often coming from a background in the transport industry, where an absolutely no-harm policy is particularly admirable. Some resorts do not have suitably qualified experts to make judgments of the safety of the areas, so there could be an argument that totally forbidding access is the correct option for these resorts. However, there could also be an argument that it’s another one of Japan’s contradictions to the greater public and occupational health policies in Japan.
Smoking and alcohol are often considered important to a country’s health and safety policy, and both are viewed with a liberal attitude in Japan. Taxes on the products are kept low compared to most Western countries and their distribution and consumption are relatively loosely monitored by the government.
I once had a builder who is a friend of mine visit me in Tokyo, and as we were walking past a building site he stopped and after a minute said, "I just counted about $100,000 worth of OH&S (Occupational Health and Safety) fines that I would be up for if that was my building site in Australia." As a member of the Japan Ergonomics Society, I have been invited to seminars and workshops by a government OH&S official whom I met at an ergonomics conference in Korea. In one such seminar, I watched a construction company’s OH&S manager present to visiting English government OH&S managers, exulting the belts that construction workers in Japan wear instead of the harnesses which are compulsory for workers at heights in the Western world (too bulky for the Japanese, apparently). When pressed on what happens when a worker falls from a height while restrained by the belt, he admitted a permanent spinal injury was the usual result. Indeed according to statistics released by the Japan Industrial Safety and Health Association (JISHA) Annual Report in 2004, the average annual total for the years 1987-2003 for deaths to construction workers has remained over 800 per year.
There are many things in Japan that can frustrate you but it’s the differences that make it so appealing to us internationals in the first place. In many ways there is something about a country that can create a robot with feelings, while allowing you to buy beer from a vending machine on the street at midnight, that you’ve got to love.