As I wake each morning, I know for certain that before the day is out I will be asked the following two questions: “Do I like living in Japan?” and “How am I coping with life in Japan?”
My friends and family back in Australia obviously ask this as a precursor to queries about my new home, job and lifestyle in Japan. But my Japanese friends and colleagues also quiz me regularly. Not out of curiosity, but out of a deep and earnest concern for my well being. They are convinced that my new life must be both stressful and difficult as a result of the radically different culture and customs I must become familiar while living in Japan.
My home in Japan is in the city of Chiba, a port city about 50 minutes by train from Tokyo, situated on Tokyo Bay. The city is compact, friendly and very modern, with a slick monorail crisscrossing the city streets.
What I would take for patronizing anywhere else, is graciously accepted when my Japanese friends insist on “teaching me Japanese life.” The sheer volume and strictness of daily customs in Japan make this education process not just an interesting pastime, but a vital necessity in order to function in this country.
In my corporate working life in Australia, as a business liaison manager for a large bank, morning greetings are casual and personal, with meetings usually started with a few pleasantries before getting down to business. Now, as a member of staff at a Japanese Junior High School, I participate in a group bow and greeting to my principal at the start of each meeting. My initial introduction to new colleagues created amusement and awkwardness when I offered a handshake and an enthusiastic “good morning” rather than a bow and a demure greeting.
As a self-confessed coffee addict, I have had to learn the fine art of balancing my cappuccino, satchel and newspaper while changing my outdoor shoes to indoor shoes in the immediate entrance to the school. As this space is rather limited, I would hate to see the jostling and positioning of this act when three or more of my colleagues arrive together!
Behaviors or actions that would be taken in a positive light in my own country can sometimes backfire in Japan. While I am used to a work environment that welcomes questions and debate, I now find myself in one that values quiet acceptance of rules and directions. My supervisor takes queries to his instructions as an insult that he has not explained himself clearly enough. So, I have learned that I must state what I intend to do rather than ask, as would normally be a common courtesy at home. If I don’t, it often results in my boss making a decision on my behalf.
I enjoy most of the Japanese customs I have experienced, as they are genuine attempts to make life civilized. A meal is not started until all are served and a greeting is made to acknowledge the good food we are about to enjoy. In Japan, we stand in line patiently waiting to board the train, bus or monorail, even to cross the street; and not one but all staff in a store, bank or business greets and farewells customers as they arrive and depart.
But these polite courtesies sometimes hamper rather than enhance daily life. Lunch is often shared with 30 teenagers in a classroom at the junior high school where I work. Serving and sitting down to eat is a long drawn-out process as everyone must be served before the signal is given for all to commence eating. With a typical wait of often 20 minutes rice and noodles go slowly cold and unappetizing.
I appreciate that lining up is an orderly and civilized thing to do. But rather than form a line as the train or bus approaches we must stand at the ready or risk missing a sit.
On my third day in Japan, I entered a bank and was inundated with greetings from each and every staff member as I walked across the foyer. Thinking I was being trailed by a V.I.P, I turned to discover that little old me was the subject of all this attention. While flattering and enjoyable the first dozen times, it becomes grating and annoying every time I enter the local bank, post office or convenience store and am welcomed with this patterned greeting. This practice must also be frustrating to the staff and I feel a wave of sympathy for my travel agent and banker as they keep one eye on their work and one on the door to ensure they acknowledge every single customer who enters and leaves the office.
It is often perceived that Westerners are impolite because of our lack of knowledge of these countless behavioral requirements, and that our own culture is devoid of good manners. I have had to explain to my Japanese colleagues and friends that our manners are just subtler and can vary greatly given the circumstances and situation. It is difficult to convey to them that there are only a few “must do’s” in Western society, and more “highly recommended” codes of behavior.
Socializing is another new and challenging mine field. As a Westerner, I enjoy friendly chats and introductions from strangers who are anxious to practice their English. However, it is hard to know whether I am popular for who I am, or more for what I am, a native “English speaker.” However, this level of curiosity makes meeting and making new friends in Japan pretty easy.
Invitations to dinners, events and outings are sincerely followed up by my new Japanese acquaintances. Vague, “let’s get together some time” just doesn’t appear to be in their vocabulary. But the sheer interest is sometimes overwhelming, with my laps at the swimming pool at my local sports center interrupted by inquiring “Do you speak English?” or an invitation from a colleague’s adult daughter to meet as she is interested in having “foreign friends.” My corporate brain is starting to kick in and I am wondering if I can’t “outsource” some of these invites to some of my newer western colleagues!
Even time spent with existing Japanese friends can be stressful. After spending a day at my friend Tomomi’s house, I came home feeling tired and worn out. I could not work out why a casual Sunday afternoon catching up with an old friend caused such a strain. But even here I had to be mindful of Japanese customs. From how I left my shoes at the doorway, (facing outwards), the way I poured a drink for my host (with two hands and not holding the glass), to how I accepted a copy of Sinji’s, Tomomi’s husband, business card (again, with two hands, admiringly and then carefully placed in my wallet).
But these friendly visits have not been without humor. On leaving a restaurant recently with this couple, mindful of Sinji’s overburden arms with baby Akari, I retrieved both mine and his shoes from the restaurant’s shoe lockers and correctly placed them facing outwards. This produced a roar of laughter from Tomomi as I was undertaking a task, by custom, reserved for a wife.
But going beyond friendship is way more difficult to navigate. A young American colleague of mine had formed a lovely friendship with one of her Japanese male colleagues. He invited her to meet his friends. However when the public venue he picked was closed and she casually suggested dinner as a suitable substitute, things got sticky.
This formerly polite and friendly young man proceeded to unceremoniously “dump” my colleague at a “100 Yen Store” with a hurried comment of “Oh, I have to go shopping.” Through a number of discreet inquiries as to the motivation behind this uncharacteristic behavior, we discovered his rationale.
It was all about “face,” and his appearance in public alone with a Western female colleague. His concern of being spotted by another colleague, supervisor or a student’s parent would see his new friendship labeled a romance and an unusual one.
Inter-racial relationships are not common in Japan.
My own personal slip in this area has been an overenthusiastic greeting of a young male Japanese friend who I had not seen for three years. My reunion hug and kiss in public, which would normally not raise a glance back home, produced a number of unabashed stares and for my poor friend Hayata, a bright red blush!
Hayata is a fashionable young Japanese man, who laments his employer’s rule that he must not add highlights to his jet black hair, as it is the rage amongst the 20-something age group in Japan at present. He is an employee of Tokyo Disneyland, where he must ensure all is picture perfect “on stage” for the enthusiastic Japanese tourists who visit. I have also played tourist at this Japanese version of the Magic Kingdom.
As a previous visitor to the California original, I was able to revisit some of my favorite attractions, but with a Japanese twist. To hear the “Pirates of the Caribbean” speak in their same gruff pirate accent as in the American version, but in Japanese was both bizarre and humorous. However, the main attraction for me was the Japanese tourists themselves. Their fascination with all things Disney saw adults gleefully line up to be photographed with their favorite character and stake out prime stops on the parade route hours before the event.
Signs of a failing Japanese economy are invisible in the countless souvenir stores at Tokyo Disneyland, where visitors crowd in to load their shopping baskets full of official Disney products. My new buddy Sinji is an example of a Japanese Disney devotee. When I admired his Mickey Mouse motif curtains in his living room, I was told that one was missing, a result of an untimely gust of wind when it was being aired on the apartment balcony. The loss of this favored furnishing was considered significant enough for Sinji to report it to the local police, in the hope that it may be spotted on their rounds!
But it is not just Japanese/American amusement parks that have grabbed my attention as a tourist. On weekends and public holidays, I have joined the human sea on the trains and buses to pay visits to various temples, shrines, parks and gardens of this country. While these places can also be bustling and crowded, they do evoke a peace and tranquility over visitors that make the crowds less apparent.
For the ultimate in tranquility, a visit to a Japanese Onsen is a must. My Japanese colleagues are surprised by my willingness to visit these spas, as the “naked” requirement is a classic Japanese custom. It is an absolute rule and applies to everyone ― even to a shy Australian like myself who prefers the modesty of a swimsuit. The “no exceptions” component of this rule was relayed to me by a smiling but insistent attendant who politely requested I remove my Speedo, much to the amusement of my fellow spa companions.
One of my few refuges from Japanese rules and customs is the simple act of running. This is a pastime that I have always enjoyed as an escape from pressures and a chance to clear my head. However the nature of my running in Japan pretty much represents what my life here resembles. My course is tightly compacted, a repetitive loop course in a small park area that requires me to dodge and maneuver around countless obstacles and individuals.
As a new resident, I have found my life so far in Japan to be similar to a puzzle needing to be solved. When I work out which piece goes where, life becomes easier, however it is the process of working out the solution that sometimes drives me to escape to the nearest Starbucks or Mac Donald’s for some relief!
Oh, before I forget. My answer to the initial two questions: Do I like living in Japan?” and “How am I coping with life in Japan?” is of course a resounding: “I love it!” and “Better, every day!