That’s So Foreign: Common Cross-Cultural Confusions In Japan
Variety, as the old saying goes, is the spice of life. Anyone who has ever lived in any foreign country for any length of time will tell you that cultural diversity is a truly fascinating concept. What one of us may find perfectly normal, another may find utterly bizarre. What delights us, may repulse others, and vice versa.
However, I’ve always thought that in Japan, such differences are mild, and easily overlooked. Since the end of the Meiji Era almost 150 years ago, Japan has westernized a great deal, to the point where bustling metropolises like Tokyo and Osaka are barely distinguishable, at first glance anyway, from any American, or indeed larger European, city.
As I often do on the weekends, last Saturday I enjoyed a coffee with one of my Japanese friends. I hadn’t seen this particular friend for some time, and we were catching up on gossip, developments at work and so on. My friend had recently returned from a trip to the US during the Golden Week holidays.
“How was it?” I asked her.
“Oh, it was great,” she enthusiastically replied. “I took some photos,” she continued, “Would you like to see them?”
“Sure,” I replied, somewhat nonchalantly.
That was my first mistake.
45 minutes, and about 300 or so photos later, the visual receptors of my brain were nearing burnout.
Amongst the obligatory photos of my friend next to various landmarks, were several pics of mundane items, like cars, shops, trains, hotel rooms, not to mention literally every item of food she had eaten during her 10 day trip, from several different angles.
“Oh, you’re so Japanese!” I exclaimed.
“How many cameras did you take with you?”
Of course the modern marvel that is the smartphone meant that the answer was of course one, but I think she got the point I was making.
I was of course playfully jibing at her with the well-worn stereotype of the Japanese tourist, multiple cameras to hand, photographing everything that moved and most things that didn’t.
“True,” she playfully conceded, “But then again it’s not just us Japanese that have some weird habits you know, there’s plenty of things you foreigners do too that we find totally bizarre.”
“Like what?” I enquired.
And that, dear readers, is where the basis for today’s article was formed. As she rhymed off a laundry list of things that bugged her about the way foreigners in Japan behave it got me thinking, how do some of my other Japanese friends feel about this?
More research would be necessary.
I asked a number of Japanese people I knew, what behavior from their foreign friends they found most baffling. It threw up some interesting results.
One Japanese friend of mine is married to a foreigner. She was puzzled by her husband’s bathing habits.
“He washes himself in the bath!” she exclaimed.
“Everybody knows that the bath is just for soaking, you should wash yourself with the shower first before you get in the bath.”
From a Japanese perspective, she had a point. Indeed what her partner was doing was a pretty major breach of Japanese bathroom etiquette. In Japan, one is indeed expected to clean themselves thoroughly before getting into the bath. Not only is this considered hygienic, but it also prevents the piping systems of the bath, which are considerably narrower than in some western countries from becoming blocked and degraded by soap suds and excess dirt.
Still, if there’s one thing we foreign guys love about the Japanese ladies, it is their immense patience and tolerance!
Another friend of mine highlighted another common social faux pas, committed by one of his colleagues at work.
My friend works for a multi-national firm, hence he is often tasked to interact with and work alongside foreigners in his daily working life. Like most companies in Japan, he also finds himself frequently attending “drinking parties” with co-workers and clients. It was at one such party that he noticed this “unusual” behavior.
“This American guy kept pouring his own beer.” My friend said.
“The poor guy next to him sat there for about an hour without a drink while this guy just kept helping himself!”
Again, this is a common error made by those new to Japan. In Scotland, as in most other countries, when I was growing up, we poured our own drinks and everyone helped themselves.
Not so here in Japan, where it is good manners to offer drinks to others before they reciprocate and pour one for you. I have spoken previously about the reciprocal nature of Japan’s gift giving culture, and this same idea carries over into the drinking culture too.
This final story is a classic example of how an innocent mistake can convey a totally different idea from what one had intended in a foreign culture.
I have a friend who lives in Kyoto and one of her hobbies is making traditional clothes. As one would expect, she is often asked to make kimonos, especially for visiting foreigners.
As something of a fashion aficionado, my friend often attends fashion shows and the like. One day, a European designer invited her to a show in Tokyo, the theme was Japanese traditional fashions. Naturally my friend was fascinated to see how a European designer would take on Japanese traditional ideas.
Unfortunately for the designer, as the first model walked out, my friend, and indeed most of the Japanese in the audience greeted her with an awkward gasp, followed by several minutes of raucous laughter.
The model was wearing an exquisite kimono, immaculate in every way, but for one small detail: the obi belt was tied in a knot at the front, as opposed to the back, resembling the black belt that would adorn the uniform of a martial arts practitioner.
Tying your belt in such a way is all fine and good for Judo or Karate class, but is a big no-no in kimono wearing. According to tradition, tying a belt at the front, suggests that the kimono can easily be untied and removed, implying that the wearer is a “woman of ill-repute” as it were.
Once the laughter had died down my friend had a quiet word with the designer.
“The patterns are beautiful,” she said “but dressing your model like a 19th century call girl isn’t the best way to win Japanese customers!”
A lesson well-learned, it’s fair to say.
Of course, such behaviors are no sooner committed than forgiven. For all we have differing values and ideas, Japanese people really aren’t that different from the rest of us. As I said to a friend recently, as a foreigner living in Japan, who loves getting to know the people and culture of this great country, I can say: “we have far more that unites us than divides us.”