On Disconnecting in Japan


It costs $200 to remove an air conditioner in Japan.

The air conditioner is not the standard American Wal-Mart heat wave window-mounted rattler; it is a wall-mounted unit with a hose that runs through a wall to a fan on the veranda.

Faced with the burden of having a completely empty apartment, I placed an ad announcing a free AC to anyone who would remove the damn thing. I soon learned that:

A) The yakuza run an air conditioner removal business; whereas they charge you a $200 recycling fee only to pocket the yen and throw the AC in the river or whatever.

B) You can’t drink water during Ramadan.

The second tidbit came by way of awkwardly offering warm water to the Egyptian man who came to claim his free AC and insisted on calling me “My dearest.” His Sri Lankan friend, licensed in AC removal, came to help my dearest new friend learn how to remove an air conditioner.

It costs $492 to replace the paper doors – fusuma – and tatami mat floors. Eyeing a small stain on my paper sliding door, I took at it with a sponge and quickly removed the stain and everything underneath it.

As a result, all four sliding doors had to be replaced (so the paper would match) on both sides. Total cost: $132.

Tatami mats – the soft, woven traditional floors – are notoriously persnickity. Having kept a couch and table on them for three years, and having scratched and scruffed them into a fine mess, I inquired into the cost of replacements: $60 per tatami, with 6 mats in the room.

The inspector didn’t even glance at them. “Foreigners don’t understand tatami,” he said. They just assume they will just have to replace the floor whenever a foreigner lives in one of the rooms, he said. No fee.

It costs $40 to extend a Japanese visa. My visa expired on the day my contract ended. So unless I worked all day and then drive to the airport to fly to Boston, I had to change my visa to a tourist. You can only extend your visa on the last day of your work contract. So I had to take the day off of work to go to the visa office so I could work my last day- which I had to spend changing my visa.

I was given a broken TV when I moved in. Three years later my school said it was my responsibility to remove it. That meant I had to visit either the post office, convenience store, or town hall – nobody was sure which – to buy a $40 stamp so I could leave the TV in the trash bin outside.

In the end I paid a guy $28 to take it away, presumably to the bottom of a lake lined with the bodies of appliances murdered by the yakuza.

It costs $100 to cancel your iPhone contract in Japan. The contract last 2 years, and then automatically renew on the second anniversary of your hand’s marriage to the phone. Unless you cancel on that precise date on a 2-year interval, you owe $100.

I sucked a great deal of air through my teeth and explained how difficult this policy was, and apologized for making trouble. I didn’t even have to refuse to pay after all that indirectness- the agent waived the fee.

I left the office with my phone turned off and waited to meet someone. A taxi driver stopped at a red light, walked out and leisurely removed the magnets and lamp from his cab. He entered the driver’s seat just in time for the light to change to green – guy had this down.

I wondered if this was something unusual or if it was just something I’d have missed while surfing Reddit or texting. Sure enough, I wanted to text it to my friend, whom I regularly trade moments of perfect Japaneseness with, but couldn’t.

That was the day before I left Japan, and it was the first moment I realized it was over. In the panicked cleaning frenzy, visits to immigration and rapid free-style giveaways of my stuff, I forgot that, at the end of all that, I was leaving.

My friends in Japan were a diaspora, scattered across cities and even prefectures, and texts were the sole reassurance that somebody, somewhere, was on your team against the onslaught of Japan. People are here with you, and you know you aren’t alone because you’re sending texts to them at lunchtime.

With my phone disconnected, I was really outside. Literally disconnected from the world of the people who stayed. I didn’t have an apartment or a cell phone or an ID card. I went from resident to temporary visitor.

And the phone said service unavailable and I got a headache from holding back the feeling of missing absolutely everything and everybody.

This post was uploaded using an iPhone in Nepal, so I can’t post Rufus Wainwrights “My Phone’s on Vibrate.” Look it up. Also, I wrote a book, guys.

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9 Responses to On Disconnecting in Japan

  1. Catspaw says:

    Dude, you are so gone. Keep posting!

  2. alua says:

    I’ve moved a lot of countries, but I don’t think it was ever that costly… Financially speaking of course, as I’m with you on the final line.

  3. “I sucked a great deal of air through my teeth…”

    LOL. Did you forget to tilt your head?

  4. I leaving Japan.
    The day I left there was a typhoon and I was huddled into a car, drinking round the softbank shops trying to end my contract – they were all closed. My sup drove me to the airport, telling me I had to go early due to the weather and sorted out my phone after I left. Congrats on the book, too!

  5. denversun says:

    This was a good read. Thanks for writing these past three years.

  6. Lucius says:

    I remember going to the Roppongi SoftBank to do that 解約 business. The same store where, two years earlier, I had gone to get my phone in the first place. Supremely melancholy. Supremely bittersweet. Of course, one often finds a way back. And the departure proves to have only been temporary. You’re not leaving Japan forever. It’s a closing of one chapter, the opening of another. Nothing is permanent. As trite as that all sounds, it’s true!

  7. hannahsan says:

    Moved out of my tiny apartment and left my tiny city a few weeks ago. Read this post standing in line for coffee in Tokyo and cried. Because it said exactly how I felt about this all being over. Thank you!

  8. Pingback: Sayonara: Six Posts on Leaving | This Japanese Life. | 生命を外面九天です

  9. Rye says:

    I’m very lucky that everything is taken care of by my company on moving in they explained that Tatami mat flooring is like bedding to Japanese and they always change it. They wouldn’t dream of sleeping on someone else’s bedding.

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