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^^

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