Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Things that are OK in the U.S. but unacceptable in Japan


What is the proper way to eat street food (here grilled squid--yum!) in Japan?

Somewhat a mirror-image of this previous post, here are some things you can do without second thought in my home country, that range from awkward “ugly American” to taboo in Japan. Some of these I didn’t do all that often in the U.S. anyway, but others still annoy me. Oh well, when in Rome!

1. Discuss politics or social problems
In my experience, the times and places to discuss politics are fewer in Japan. It’s not kosher to loudly give your (negative or condescending) opinion while sitting in a café, for example. It’s odd, coming from America where everyone has an opinion, but few Japanese are interested in debate or sharing their views on topics that might cause disagreement. From the day we met my husband always bucked this trend and we talk politics all the time!

2. Whistle or sing in public
I can’t think of many times that I did this back home anyway, but it’s just not done in Japan, unless you are drunk, and even then whistling is just a no, especially for women.

3. Eat and walk at the same time
You won’t see people eating ice-cream cones and walking down the street in summer. Sometimes I want to…just get a 100-yen ice-cream from the convenience store and eat it on the way home on those hot summer days…but it’s rude here. You won’t even see many people carrying cups of coffee. They put it in a bag until they get to their home/workplace or whatever and drink it there. Even during events that serve food outside (like summer festivals) most people hang around the stall they bought the food from until they've finished. It’s best to not be a rebel about this because there are few public trash cans in Japan, so the stall that sold you the food is the only place to throw away the cup/plate/wrapper etc. when you’re done.

4. Hold doors for people
It used to be the mark of a gentleman, but now I think it’s become common courtesy both sexes do in America. If you do it in Japan you can expect it to be an event: the person you held the door for will bow and apologize, perhaps more than once. The Japanese have a trending word these days “omotenashi” which means “hospitality” but it doesn't really extend to lending strangers a helping hand. In Japanese culture, every action is accompanied by an equal and opposite reaction: if someone does something for you, you are duty-bound to do something in return, “ongaeshi.". But if you help a stranger, you create an awkward situation for that person because they won’t be able to repay you in kind. So Japanese often just ignore someone who could use a hand…the person struggling might appreciate help but they’d also be embarrassed if you made a big deal about helping them.

5. Greet friends by yelling across the street
This is a regional thing in America too but raised voices in public (even happy voices) are frowned upon here. I see many tourists, backpackers, and travelers in our area in Kyoto, and if a group is talking loudly enough that I can hear them from across the street, sure enough, they’re always American.

6. Ask for money (homeless)
There are plenty of homeless people in Japan, but you will never see them with signs asking for jobs, food, or money, perhaps due to #4. I don’t think many passerby would offer change anyway. The Japanese way is to do things officially and donate to a charity, leaving it to an organization rather than private individual actions to take care of the poor. Only one time an old lady asked me for money "for a taxi home", I gave it to her, Yuya said I shouldn't have because she probably just spent it on pachinko (gambling machines), but oh well.

7. Show lots of skin
This goes for men and women. Even at the beach both sexes cover up. I think it is due to a combination of modesty (which in Japan doesn't mean Victorian morals; it means refraining from showing too much self-confidence) and Asian beauty trends in which white skin is more desirable than tanned skin.

8. Play loud music/musical instruments in your home
There are bad neighbors to be found in any country, but in my experience neighborhoods in Japan really are quiet! To keep houses from being eaten by mold in the humid summer, walls are built very thin and “breathable” with little to no insulation…this means in some homes and apartments you can hear your neighbor washing dishes, watching TV, having an argument, or even getting it on (awkward). Most people make efforts to keep the noise level down at home, out of consideration for others and also to protect their own privacy. With this in mind we searched until we found an apartment building made out of concrete, so there are thick (nearly) sound-proof walls between us and our neighbors. Yay!

9. Go out in pajamas/no makeup/frumpy clothes
Granted it’s not in good taste to go out in your PJs in the U.S. either, but the pressure to look good in public is much more intense here, especially for women. Most would never dream of going out without hair and make-up done. Think 1950s in America. It's sometimes an annoying social pressure, but I've found you don't need to spend a lot of money or have great taste to blend in better: as long as you wear layers (never just one top or Tshirt) and clean, unwrinkled/undamaged clothes that fit you properly, you'll pass.

10. Except to leave work on time
I remember using an American English textbook put out by a Japanese publisher. On a chapter about work-related phrases and vocab, there were two illustrations: one for "work overtime" and one for "leave work early". The clock in the overtime illustration pointed to 11pm and there was a moon and stars outside the office window. The clock in the "leave early" picture showed 6pm and the worker with sheepish face going out with many others still at their desks.
There was no vocabulary for "on time". 
I was shocked! Leaving at 6pm is not "early"! It's on time! "Early" should show the worker sheepishly ducking out at 3 or 4pm.
I was fascinated by the use of English to fit Japanese lifestyles, with absolutely no importation of American culture in the textbook, but that's fodder for another post.
There are many different reasons the Japanese put in so much paid or unpaid overtime. One possible reason is Japanese people despise idleness, so those who aren’t at work, who sigh for the weekend, or talk too much about after-work plans are seen as childish. Another reason may be the way to get promoted at work is to make as many people as possible to think well of you, so folks want to stay late to improve their image. A third reason is in a hierarchical Japanese company it’s not good to have the audacity to leave work before your boss does…so if your boss is sucking up to an even bigger boss by staying and working until the last train 11:30pm, all the underlings must as well. Another reason is many companies hire for life: they intend to keep you until retirement. The system offers some great benefits, but since they’re reluctant to let people go even when business is bad, they hire only the barest minimum needed to get the work done, and don’t often hire temporary folks when business is good. So if orders are pouring in, 3 people may have to do the work of 10 for a season, or for years.
At my workplace, I’m usually given the “gaijin-card” and leave work soon after the time stated in my contract. I'm glad, because ain't nobody got time to volunteer at work, is my thinking! 

11. Wear shoes in the house/put your feet on things
Feet and shoes are really dirty in Japan. They stay off in the house, and putting your feet on anything other than the floor is frowned upon. I know my Japanese co-workers wince every time I use my foot to move something/shut a cabinet door, so I try not to do it.

12. Blow your nose in public
The Japanese think this is really gross. Especially when you put the used tissue back in your purse or pocket. It's more socially acceptable to "snuffle up" until you can get to a bathroom. Spring allergies make my nose run like fountains so I have to blow my nose anyway...I try to be as discreet as possible.

13. PDA
Sometimes you can see young people holding hands, but you’ll rarely see anything else! Kissing is definitely a no-no! Friends also do not hug when meeting or parting. I realized that in America a lot of Christian couples in church put their arms around each other/give back rubs during the service. Japanese Christian couples sit with at least a person-width of daylight in between, or even in different pews, and never touch each other in public. If my husband and I sat like that in an American church people might think we’ve been fighting or something! I don’t mind this because I’m not a touchy-feely person by any means, and am private about tender moments. It does mean however that even touchy greetings are rare: if we meet up at a station for example, I have to wait for my welcome-back kiss and hug until we get home!

So there we go, some observations on do's and dont's in Japan. If it seems constricting, it is sometimes! But there is oddly enough freedom here in other ways, as in my companion post Things that are OK in Japan but unacceptable in the U.S. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Book: My Japanese Husband (still) Thinks I'm Crazy


Hmm, something Yuya might say about me? Nope! It's a free book for you to read!

Last year, I discovered this blog by a another young lady married to a Japanese man in Tokyo. I love her blog; the comics are cute and funny, and remind me of when I first came to Japan. I don't know many other international couples so I'm always glad to read stories about others, and Grace always offers a funny, lighthearted but thought-provoking perspective on intercultural marriage in a foreign country. The blog is kind of random snippets though, no post is very related to the previous one, but in the book, you can read several comics around one theme (for example: New Year's) and get a deeper feel for Grace's experiences. I recommend these books for anyone wanting a fun read about expat life in another culture!

Grace has published two books of her comics and short vignettes of her impressions of Japan, both of which I've had the privilege of reading for free--and you can too! 

Both the new book and the previous My Japanese Husband Thinks I'm Crazy kindle versions are free to download until February 22nd, so there's not much time! The newest book is free to download here on Amazon.

If you live in a different country or you don't have a Kindle but still want to read the book, check this post on Grace's blog for how to download.

Check it out and enjoy!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Things that are OK in Japan but unacceptable in the U.S.

This building is supposed to represent the foam on a mug of beer. People laugh because it looks like a giant golden piece of...yup. Either way, it's totally cool to display in public in Japan!

To Americans, a lot of Japanese culture seems less open and accepting in comparison to our own culture. It’s true “rigid” “perfectionist” “polite” “closed” are some words I’d use to describe Japanese culture, but it’s also true every culture has its own rules for how best to function in society. Even the U.S., the land of the free, has some strict unwritten rules for behavior. Here are some things I can do in Japan that I’ll have to be careful to not do in America!

1. Drink in public
There is little taboo about alcohol here. You can have a picnic or barbecue in a public park and not worry about the minors running around your uncovered cans of booze.
You can also be fabulously drunk in public, as long as you’re not driving vehicles or disturbing the peace too much.

2. Wear real fur
Real rabbit (and other) fur is everywhere in winter fashion: muffs, coat collars, even little girls’ hair ties. It’s not expensive and since there haven’t been major movements to protect animals here, it’s not a social taboo to buy and wear it. I don’t think I’d have the guts to show it off in my college town of Portland Oregon though!

3. Let kids go to school by themselves
In the city there aren’t buses for elementary school and up. In mornings and afternoons they fill the trains on their commute: dozens of 7-year-olds in adorable school uniforms ALL BY THEMSELVES. They chat together or do homework on their laps, then get off at their own stops and put their monthly train passes through the machine, then walk home. In America it wouldn't be considered safe, but here it’s normal.

4. Ignore wait staff
In America, you should say “thank you” to wait staff in restaurants, and at least smile at the Wal-mart greeters. But the one thing Japan does much better than any other country is customer service. It’s so good, there’s something feudal about it. There is no need to return the greetings of customer service workers because while they’re in uniform, they are not equals. There is a saying in Japan, “the customer is god” and no matter how rude or unreasonable you are, they will never make you feel like anything less. A god doesn't have to acknowledge the hard work of his servants. If you try to be democratic and thank staff like equals, they will feel awkward about how to respond, since it’s off the script. I am shy with strangers so I like this system—no pressure to engage with wait staff. But in America, if you act like a Japanese customer, you might get bad service!
Granted, this is in the case of professionals. For little mom-and-pop privately-owned restaurants or cafes, I always say “gochisou-sama” (it was a feast) when I leave.

5. Ride my bike on the sidewalk
At least true in Kyoto, where sidewalks are wide and sometimes even divided in sections for pedestrians and cyclists. Because the street is for cars!

6. Show off my legs
In U.S. fashion, a lot of ladies like to wear long pants and clingy v-neck tops. In Japan, you have to cover up your chest and shoulders completely, but you can bare your whole leg if you like! You don’t even need a thigh-gap to be allowed to do so. Mini skirts, tiny shorts, patterned tights, and hot boots are not at all “hooker” gear here, perhaps because they are always paired with shapeless, modest tops with very conservative necklines. I used to worry if I sat down and my skirt went above my knees. Not anymore! I still want to be modest but especially if you wear tights, skirt length is hardly an issue here. However ladies at church will say “Aren't you cold?” if my top exposes too much of my shoulders and chest!

7. Be fashionable and not have your sexual preferences questioned (men)
A lot of city-dwelling Japanese love expensive brands, and even men care about how they look. Here men are free to try daring things like skinny jeans, floral prints, pops of color, or just a polished professional look every time they go out in public, and not have their masculinity called into question. Japanese men wear conservative suits to work, and what they wear on the weekend we’d call “business casual”. There are a few who look like they just stepped off a high-fashion runway. Very few who look like they just rolled out of bed, and sandals, shorts, and Tshirts are for the beach.

8. Speak my native language in public
In America, especially in rural areas that experience a lot of immigration, there are folks who passionately say “learn English! I shouldn’t have to press 1 to speak my own language!” In Japan, there is no such expectation, in fact there is pride in the opposite direction: “our language is so unique and so difficult, there’s no way a non-Japanese could ever master it!” People are pleasantly surprised if you have a non-Japanese face or name but speak Japanese. No one yells at me “this is Japan! Speak Japanese darn it!” if I use English when ordering food. Actually, the more broken your Japanese is, the more Japanese people will praise your efforts! I get self-conscious and stutter and freeze up if I think someone is critical of my Japanese skills, so I definitely benefit emotionally from the very “safe” linguistic environment this makes.

9. Make noise when eating
The polite and reserved Japanese actually slurp their noodles and hot liquids. It’s the proper way to do it—blowing on your food to cool it is not done so slurping apparently helps avoid burnt tongues. You can also lift bowls to drink broth/soup. It’s way more efficient than spooning it up (and dripping it on yourself) and helps avoid wasting food. Too bad it’s frowned upon in America.

10. Talk about bodily functions
Culture shock is when you overhear two elderly folks at church talking about how a certain supplement helped cure their constipation. Or overhearing co-workers of the opposite sex discuss family planning, fertility, and menstrual cycles. These things are not seen as dirty or a joke, but just part of being human that we all must deal with in life. This extends to marketing and kids' toys (once my boss gave turd-shaped candies to the kids!) and to discussing peoples' body shapes. It's not rude to say, "My goodness you've gotten fat!" when meeting a friend you haven't seen in a while. The openness is kind of nice...I guess?

11. Use an umbrella
In Seattle, only tourists do this. But I love umbrellas! Some have cute patterns that brighten up a grey day. No more damp clothing. And it's so cozy when hubby holds the big umbrella and we link arms under it. It's true in Seattle, "rain" is usually that half-hearted drizzly stuff it's possible to brave without an umbrella, while in Japan "rain" usually means business: big, fat drops that will soak you in minutes. Did I mention by the way that Japanese weather is very well-behaved? If the weatherman says it will start raining around 10 a.m., it actually will rain within that hour! So pack your umbrella when the TV says so; it's rarely wrong.

12. Smoke
I don't smoke, and I heartily dislike the smell. However it is quite common in Japan which has never had any sort of "no stank you" campaigns. Few restaurants are exclusively non-smoking (though it's said that the success of Starbucks here is making non-smoking establishments a new trend, yay!), and posters of what your lungs will look like are only seen once in a while in doctor's offices. Tobacco use is on the decline among the younger generation, and campaigns to corral smokers in designated areas are on the rise (probably to "clean up" major cities before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics), but there is not the social pressure against it that you see in the U.S.

13. Surgical masks
The Japanese wear these a lot when they have colds, when they didn't have time for make-up, or when the pollen is at its worst. Whether or not they are an effective barrier against airborne germs/pollen, if you're hacking and coughing it's polite to put on a mask in public. I like to wear a mask in the classroom sometimes because little kids aren't always very good at "covering" when  they cough or sneeze. And if you show up at work in a mask your Japanese co-workers will say "oh poor thing here sit down and have some tea!" Masks also keep my face warm on cold, windy days. But yeah...if someone wore a surgical mask in public in the U.S., people would stare wondering what sort of horrible disease you have.

These are just some things one can enjoy here, that are awkward or rude back home—next time, I want to write about the opposite: things that are fine in America but taboo in Japan! Stay tuned^^

Monday, February 9, 2015

Valentine's Day in Japan

Some Japanese write their wishes for romance and marriage on heart-shaped plaques at a shrine, in hopes a god of love will take note

V-Day is almost here, folks. The dread of singles because it’s such a celebration of couples: women have high hopes of being spoiled, so they can boast on social media about how great their SO is; men wrack their brains to come up with something she’ll not sulk over for a month.

It’s totally different in Japan.

The reserved Japanese are not into lavish displays of affection, or intimate date nights, or romantic flings outside the pages of a manga. They are, however, very much into reciprocal gift-giving, high-quality chocolate, and nonverbal hints of flirtation.

So this is how it works in Japan: on Valentine’s Day, women give gifts of chocolate to their male friends and co-workers. Yes, everyone. It's not very romantic, but it is chocolatey. At the end of January, chocolate fairs and events start popping up in department stores all over town. These days, foreign designer chocolates are all the rage. $3 and up per mouthful of the most elite brands. I have walked through some of these places. It looks more like jewelry than edibles! If you’re lucky enough to get a free sample, it’s like you've died and gone to heaven…or you might secretly think a simple Hershey’s bar is a better fit to your uncultured palate. Single or taken, I’m pretty sure  chocolate lovers would enjoy V-Day in Japan.

So where’s the romance? It’s in what’s called “honmei-choco” or “true feelings chocolate”. An elaborately-wrapped box of the above luxury chocolate would be understood to be mere “giri-choco” or “chocolate out of duty”—the proper gift for your boss and inhabitants of your friend-zone. True-love chocolate, on the other hand, needs to have a personal touch and is best if it’s homemade (i.e., melted down and poured in a mold, or made into truffles). This gives women a Sadie Hawkins chance to declare their feelings for the male object of their affections. Young girls who can’t be bothered either with social niceties or romance give each other “tomo-choco” , “friendship chocolate”. It’s very cute—think tiny chocolate Hello Kitties for girls and wee chocolate bullet trains for boys.

If it seems unfair that the onus is on women to procure chocolate and spoil the men in their lives, never fear, Japanese reciprocity is here! Men must keep track of all the chocolates received and the approximate monetary value and return the favor, unfortunately not necessarily with chocolate, a month later on “White Day,” March 14th. It is a totally Japanese-made holiday, since in this country it would probably rip a hole in the universe if you received a gift without giving one in return. Hopefully, those who gave true-love chocolate will be rewarded with a date before March.

Since living in Japan, I've made true-love homemade chocolates for my husband each year. I enjoy it—it’s an excuse to try some of the recipes on Pinterest for all those guilty-pleasure sweets. And of course I eat as I cook. I've also given duty-chocolates to my husband’s housemates and my male co-workers, though these days I wonder about it...since if I give them something, they will feel obliged to give ME something, so maybe it’s best to just not even start the vicious cycle?

I've also suggested to hubby that we do things more American style, and not worry about White Day a month later (too easily forgotten) but just pick up some Krispy Kremes for me the day of and call it good.

Either way, I think the bottom line of Valentine’s Day is to be sweet to each other, a big plus if this includes actual consumption of sweets. Japan is the ideal environment for this kind of Valentine's Day, so you will never catch me complaining!

Monday, February 2, 2015

Truth, Justice, and the American Way

It sounds corny but whoever came up with that slogan knew what appeals to Americans, I’d say.

My own American culture is like my American  accent: everyone has a funny accent but me, because mine is so close it’s invisible. Everyone has a different, funny or strange culture except me. Well, I notice I have four pointy corners only when I find myself being forced into a round hole.

For one thing, I realized justice is very close to our hearts. I see it in the current trend of young people who have a passion for social justice and righting wrongs at home and abroad. In my college near Portland, Oregon, if you weren't campaigning or volunteering or occupying Wall Street or making the latest human-rights-violating villain famous on Facebook, you were basically a troll from under a rock. This thinking is not just for young hip liberals in Portland though. From the crotchety old gun-toting Tea Partier, to the pro-life soccer mom protesting outside the abortion clinic, as Americans we all have the same attachment to justice, if you think about it. We may have vastly different views but we all partake in the same system, especially on a personal level. We get angry when our personal rights get trampled on, and we feel it is a very noble, righteous anger. We can call on our rights, on our legal system, on principles outlined in our Constitution, like calling down fire from Heaven, because in the face of “rights” opposing arguments melt away. It’s not just political to us, it’s emotional and personal.

 I notice this a lot at work. I like to think I have a right to certain things like privacy (why do I have submit the results of my physical to my manager?), truth about company policy, and pay for every hour of work. Yet in Japan, “rights” just aren't mentioned or talked about very much in society. No one invokes them in an attempt to get out of a situation, because the basis of Japanese culture is not the individual but the flourishing of the group. Everyone is committed to preserving that group harmony.

Part of individualism is acknowledging that other people—not just yourself—are also individuals, with feelings, hopes, dreams, motivations, a personality, etc. that are completely unique to them. We don’t try to “read the air” and work overtime in order to follow what everyone else is doing, because in pressuring someone to do so you are not respecting them as an individual with the right to feel sick, or tired, or to have children at home, or to simply want to leave work on time. Men are islands. Everyone has a little impenetrable wall around them of individuality that makes us a bit “dry” and self-centered when it comes to relationships with others.

Japanese on the other hand, are all about adjusting themselves to fit whatever atmosphere they happen to be in. To not do so, is selfish, inconsiderate, childish or just strange. Some Japanese get so good at this hiding and adjusting though, that they need alcohol before they can speak their real mind.

What is interesting to me is what happens to Japanese when they become Christians. This sacrificing of personal rights is emphasized as a part of their faith “to mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice” and so adjusting and suppressing one's self is the way to show love to people. I think Americans take an opposite tack, and emphasize “different gifts but members of one body” and accepting people just as they are to show love. I think American Christians can learn something from the Japanese about patience and self-sacrifice, and Japanese can maybe learn something about honesty and consideration for the individual's feelings. It’s thought-provoking when you realize faith is not safe from the bias of culture. I went through a phase when I was studying abroad where I tried so hard to follow what Japanese people do and adjust my behavior as needed...but it messed with my head and made re-entry so painful, the next time I decided I would just be American and if I offended some Japanese people in the process, oh well. But now I am coming full-circle, and wondering if the way I show love to fellow Christians is different from their way, and if my efforts are being interpreted by them as “love” at all...I may have to try my best to love with their methods.

I think if we are true Christians, we need to try and forget our nationality and culture for a minute. Christianity does not equal the American right wing, or the American love of fighting for your rights. If you read the Bible, it’s actually about the opposite. Jesus did not consider equality with God—his rights—as something to cling to. He willingly gave them up. We are also called to give up our rights and unselfishly look to the welfare of others, placing ourselves in the hands of God who judges justly. (I should clarify, in situations where employment is involved, like in my husband's company, I do hope he can make boundaries and remember Christians should "not become the slaves of men". Offering oneself on the altar of a commercial company that's just after profits is not what Jesus had in mind by his example, methinks. He had in mind a personal laying down of one's life especially for those who can't give anything in exchange).

So in our church life and our marriage, I want to hold on to this lesson. It’s something my life in Japan has brought to my attention, that I never heard talked about at home, because American Christians don’t want to talk about giving up rights or individuality or personal happiness without complaint. It makes people from all political persuasions pretty uncomfortable. But I think this humility and patience is something that can revitalize and deepen our love and relationships. It's something we need to learn and show the world, no matter which culture we happen to be a part of.