This is the first part of a series, Culture Shock in Japan, that will document some of the various experiences from my years spent living abroad in Japan. For anyone interested in going to Japan, I hope this gives you an idea of some things you can expect. I wish I’d had something like this before taking my journey. This article will explain the culture shock I went through and some of the more common things you’re likely to hear from foreigners who have lived in Japan. Some level of culture shock may be inevitable, but reading these articles might give you the cushion you need to soften your landing in Japan.
I was no stranger to Japan. I had visited six times before moving there. I also took a Japanese course in college and was married to a Japanese woman. These combined factors gave me more knowledge of Japanese culture than the average American who likes Japan and moves there to teach English. Before I moved, many people asked me, “So, you think you can live in Japan?” I answered: “I don’t know, I haven’t lived there yet.” It’s important to understand that visiting a place doesn’t make you an expert on knowing what it’s like to live there. Admittedly, I was guilty of thinking I knew more than I really did about Japan. I did, in fact, know more than most people who decide to relocate to Japan, but boy was I in for a surprise.
When you learn about Japanese culture in America, it’s almost always about sumo, sushi, sake, and geishas… and oh, Hello Kitty and Godzilla as well, right? When I took my Japanese class in the US, more than half the students were what you would call an “otaku,” which in Japanese translates to a fanatical fan of something. We more typically use otaku to refer to someone who is into “anime” (Japanese animation).
Then there’s also a special bunch that are identified by the term “weeaboo,” or someone who is obsessed with Japan/Japanese culture, etc. You could probably put a plate of whale meat on their plate, tell them that it’s from Japan, and watch them eat it up with joy. These types don’t let anything Japan-related get them down. Unfortunately for them, Japanese class was about learning a difficult language. At two weeks into my Japanese class, more than half the students dropped out. I wasn’t surprised. If you have an interest in… say… anime, that’s great. That might make it a little easier for you to study Japanese; however, if that’s your main reason, you will more than likely fail. The Japanese language is not an easy one to learn.
The good thing about taking a Japanese language course in college is that you also learn about the culture. Well, you learn a little… What they don’t teach you is the daily life stuff you actually need to know. Everyone knows about sumos and geishas, but let’s be honest people, that has very little to do with Japan. You don’t see women walking around in kimonos everywhere you go. You’d have to wait for a festival or go to somewhere like Kyoto to see kimonos, but even then they wear a summer kimono, which is a lighter, easier kimono to wear. The only other times you’d see women or men wearing a kimono would be for a wedding.
One thing I had to learn the hard way in Japan was how to use a Japanese toilet; you think that’s funny, right? Well, good luck to you when it’s your turn. There I was at an underground mall and the only toilets they had were the squatting Japanese toilets. Okay, so there’s a hole in the ground, but which way do you face? Yeah, I faced the wrong way. This image shows the way you should actually face: towards the piping. Either way, if you’re not used to this sort of thing… well, have fun! No one ever explained it to me, because foreigners are 1% of Japan’s population, and let’s face it, they accommodate their people. It’s another country. Too often I see people think that a country like Japan will be similar to their own. Be prepared to upset a lot of Japanese people simply by eating.
There is an accepted code of table manners in Japan, just like in any country. Even I, being married to a Japanese woman, didn’t know a lot of Japanese table manners. I’ve made mistakes. One example: grabbing food from someone’s chopsticks with my own chopsticks. That is a big no-no, because this is something that is done at funerals in Japan. It’s the “passing of the bones” after a person is cremated. Everyone from the family will do a passing of bones with chopsticks. Another no-no that may seem small but is not well received is blowing one’s nose at the table (even though they’ll blow their nose right next to you on the train). Hands do not rest on your lap under the table, and elbows don’t rest on the table, either.
Another thing I wasn’t very accepting of at first but, later came to accept and respect, is the lack of public displays of affection. In America, I grew up where it wasn’t a big deal to see couples holding hands, hugging, and kissing in public places. In Japan, people do not do this. I once hugged my ex-wife in public only to have her push me away. I was upset at first, and didn’t care about their customs, but I came to realize that it didn’t matter how small I thought it was, it was one of those things I had to learn to accept about this new place I was in.
Most Japanese are accepting of foreigners. Maybe not the older group as much, but if you do your best to blend in and do what others are doing, things will work out just fine for you. A lot of Japanese people like to practice their English with an English speaking foreigner, and the more adjusted you get to Japan and their Culture, the more approachable you’ll be, and the easier your life in Japan will become.
In part two I’ll cover more about the good and the bad extracted from my experience abroad, and how those experiences shaped me into the person I am today. Remember, though culture shock can be difficult, pushing through it can lead you to have great learning experiences that allow you to grow as a person. Feel free to comment and ask questions.