We spent the weekend in Japan – Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe. I was struck mainly by two things. One, it’s kind of ridiculous how cash based Japan still is. All the transit systems and most of the restaurants we went to only took cash. It strikes me as so primitive – there’s no other country I’ve been to that’s still like that. It’s strange.
The other thing that surprised me was how pervasive Korean was in the public signage, even more common than English. I find that a stunning reflection of how wealthy Korea has become.
I first came to Korean in the summer of ’95, for a summer school program at KAIST in Daejeon. It was unlike the Yonsei program most kyopos went to in that it wasn’t exclusively a Korean language program – we also took classes in things like sociology and even modern physics. I still remember some of the lessons from those classes today. For example, the physics class is where I learned about the gravitational equivalence principle, and thus why time elapses more slowly the higher you are in a gravitational field. I also remember the sociology professor mentioning that South Korea was a 3rd world country.
That stunned me just because I had a mental concept of what a 3rd world country was like – mainly stuck in abject poverty – and Korea didn’t seem that. But the professor was speaking from some academic standard that was true at the time. And it was strikingly different from today. The streets regularly smelled of sewage. Everything was pretty dirty. Really, the only truly rich Asian country at the time was Japan, and that was reflected in their tourists – you have to be rich to be able to travel in large numbers. So for the longest time, anywhere we traveled in the world, like Tahiti on our honeymoon, we were greeted with “konichiwa” and Japanese menus.
So to me, there being so much Korean in a foreign country is a big deal, it means Korea is truly rich. It has been for a while, but seeing it in Japan made it really striking.