Monday, February 8, 2016

Does Living in Japan Make You a Better Person?

If that's not a provocative title for the expat community, I'm not sure what is, but it was the subject of this article from Rocket News:

Now I know this website is pretty sketchy as far as journalism goes (in the above article, there is no mention of how many or what demographic of people they interviewed, and an odd clickbait conclusion at the end) but the question it raised stayed in my mind for a few days.

Has living in Japan made me a better person? Can it make people better?

I want to say, "no." Because as they say, "wherever you go, there you are." Living abroad won't automatically change your life or give you some enlightenment or gold stars. It won't suddenly make rude people nice. In fact it might bring out your worst, weakest sides before it has any positive effects. Then there are those lovely gaijin who come here and enjoy behaviors that would never be allowed in their home countries because here, linguistically and culturally they feel distanced from social norms and in Japan, as insular as it is, there is little pressure to adapt. We are never told: "Hey foreigner, you're in Japan, speak Japanese! Do things our way, or go home!" Socially, expectations for foreigners (especially white, Western ones) are very low and we're forgiven and allowed to get away with a lot. Some people use this as a free pass to be an all-around butthead (as close to swearing as I'm gonna get). I'm not sure just being in Japan--manners by osmosis--is capable of making them better people. It comes down to whether you're making an effort to self-improve or not.

Obviously, we have to define "better". Or a "good person". The definition of what makes a good person changes from culture to culture. Japan's good polite person is someone else's shy and dishonest person. America's independent and outgoing person is Japan's selfish and undisciplined person.

It is true, however, in a society built around hierarchies and group harmony, a lot of good Japanese manners also coincide with good Western manners: be quiet and considerate of others on public transportation, respect the elderly, express thanks often, don't steal lost items, think of other's feelings before you speak, show up on time, communicate in a way that prioritizes what is proper for the situation regardless of your internal emotional climate.

There are some ways I think living in Japan has changed me. I put "better" and "worse" in quotation makes because for most of these points, the value judgement depends on your point of view. See these posts that go into more detail: Things that are Ok in the U.S. but unacceptable in Japan and vice-versa: Things that are OK in Japan but unacceptable in the U.S. 

Here are the ways I could think of that Japan has made me "better"

-Punctuality. I've gotten strict about time, and usually show up 5-10 minutes early to appointments, meetings, etc.

-Using a low voice in public. I don't think I was a very loud verbose person even before coming to Japan, but here the volume is lower (for adults, kids are not proper Japanese yet). Most people speak in much lower/softer voices than at home and it's still sometimes hard to catch what they are saying!

-Dressing well in public. Especially shoes. I don't like for my shoes to be an afterthought. One must take off shoes in public (restaurants, fitting rooms, etc.) more often than at home, and sometimes the staff rearrange/put them away for you! It's embarrassing to wear worn-out or dirty shoes. Also I never wear hole-y or mismatching socks for the same reason.

-Considering the neighbors. No vacuuming or music after 10pm. Why? Because my neighbors also exercise the same consideration for me.

-Professional behavior. I got my first "real job" in Japan. My workplace now is much more relaxed and casual, but at first I learned the rules the Japanese way. Wear suits. Have good posture at all times. Get rid of fidgety habits like pencil tapping, playing with hair, jiggling legs, rattling something in pockets, etc. Don't let the phone ring more than twice before you pick it up. Don't cross your legs in front of customers or superiors. Don't eat, drink, or chat with coworkers in front of them. Stand up from your desk and greet them heartily when they come in and when they leave. If you show them to the door, don't turn back or step out of character until they are out of sight. Since my current workplace doesn't really enforce any of these, I've probably unlearned most of these good habits. Oh well!

-Flexible about food. Never just say ew! or pass. Try everything, and never make a big reaction/gag if you don't like it. My palate and tastes have definitely changed since coming to Japan. Some things I now enjoy: octopus, raw fish including squid, fish roe, fish sperm, natto (fermented soy beans), seaweed, sour pickled plums, black coffee. I'll try anything once, and more often than not end up liking it!

Some ways Japan has made me "worse"

-Less aware of others in public. This may sound contradictory, but one reason Japanese are so non-confrontational in public situations is because they're very good at ignoring each other. Poker face, especially when the train is crowded. See but don't look. Don't make eye-contact. After a while, others become faceless blobs around you.

-Don't get involved in things that don't concern me. This can be a good thing of course, but it means I'm less likely to reach out to someone who really needs help. See an item left on a train? Ignore it. See a man passed out in the station? Walk by with requisite poker face (he's probably just drunk).

-Don't make conversation with wait staff. Customer service is so good in Japan, it's almost feudal. There's no expectation to chit-chat, return greetings or even make eye-contact with staff. I keep some Americanisms by saying "thank you" when they refill my water/bring the food, etc., but even that is not required, and since my voice is low and I don't make eye-contact or smile, it probably wouldn't fly back home.

-I've gotten shyer/quieter. In America, I always felt pressure to BE MORE: be more outgoing, be more proactive, be more friendly, be more open. All the best people are! Anyone who's not must be hiding something. Shy people are GROSS. But in Japan, there is pressure to be less: be less noisy. Be less big. Be less aggressive, be less open. This atmosphere reinforces rather than challenges my already reserved nature so I don't think I've "improved" (by American standards) in that area.

-Impatience with late transportation/people. The other side of becoming more punctual myself and used to things running on time is I'm more likely to grumble about people and things who are not.


So have I become a better person? Perhaps better in some areas, worse in others, so overall I'm not sure if I can say there's any improvement. There may be many other ways Japan has changed me that I won't notice until I try living somewhere else!
How about you? Has living abroad changed you at all?

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