Japanese Bureaucracy, Or: The Story of my lost Hair Conditioner

The country I’m from is rather infamous for having one of the most pedantic bureaucracies in the word, but after moving to Japan, Germany suddenly seemed to me like a place run by a bunch of hippies. To paint a picture, I won’t bore you with the times I went to town offices and such, where I had to fill out paperwork that would never end, but instead tell you the story of my lost hair conditioner.

Since I was stressed out of my mind the first months of living and working in Japan, I went to the Onsen (hot spring bathhouse) near my apartment on a daily basis, to sit in the hot water for hours, stare at the night sky and listen to Japanese grandmas who were sitting next to me and exchanging the latest gossip.

Once I realized that the shampoo and conditioner provided at the Onsen weren’t really meant for non-Japanese hair and dried mine out immensely, I started bringing my own conditioner that I got back in Germany. This was a perfectly good system, until one night when I came home, I realized that I had accidentally left it in one of the showers.

Assuming that the staff at the Onsen would do what staff normally does in Europe, which is to simply throw out what people leave behind, I got really sad about losing this conditioner. Judge me all you want, but when you can only bring a suitcase full of things from your home country, these few things become very precious to you, even when they’re mundane and inexpensive, because these mundane and inexpensive things can be something to hold on to, something that makes you feel connected to home, if only because the writing on them is in your mother tongue.

That night I happened to talk to a Japanese friend and of course the conditioner came up, as a representative for everything that was going wrong for me at the time and the homesickness I was feeling. I’m extremely lucky to have friends who can deal with me being upset about a hair conditioner (or who understand that it’s not really about the hair conditioner in the first place), so my friend told me that she was sure it was still there and that she’d call the reception of the Onsen the next day to ask about it.

Much to my surprise, it really was still there and had been put into a ’lost and found’ kind of place in the multistory building. I went back to the reception of the Onsen to ask about it and they told me to go down to the first floor. Once I was there, I couldn’t find it on my own, so I had to go back to ask for directions again. Since Japanese people are insanely helpful, one of the staff went down there with me. We walked through a door, down a corridor and down another corridor. There was no one else around and I was starting to wonder what the hell was happening, but when we reached the ’lost and found’, I was truly amazed.

It looked like a little police station with a glass window and a guy in a uniform behind it. The room he was standing in was full of cupboards with drawers, all the way up to the ceiling. Onsen staff guy told uniform guy what I was looking for and he disappeared behind the cupboards, to reappear some time later with a shampoo bottle inside a clear plastic bag. Unfortunately, it wasn’t mine. I told him that, so he went back, searching for the right one. This time he did find it. It had been put into a clear plastic bag as well.

Happy and (truly and deeply) amazed, I wanted to say thank you and leave, but the procedure wasn’t over yet. I had to fill out a form with my name, phone number and address. Why, I’m not entirely sure. Someone else claiming that I stole their conditioner by coming to this bizarre place and describing exactly that conditioner seems rather unlikely, doesn’t it?

But here comes into play what since that day I’ve been learning about Japan: Things don’t always have to make sense. They are being done the way they are being done, simply because that’s the way it is. There seems to be a standard procedure for everything, no matter how minor the issue. Of course this way of thinking has its downsides. It can make daily life annoyingly complicated. But it can also make you feel safe because a country which takes care of a person’s belongings like that, must apply the same logic to the person itself. Which as you know from my hospital stories, proved to be true.

No sappy ending this time. Only this:

Thanks Japan, for not throwing out my conditioner.




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