Cultural Shock in Japan 101

I embarked a new journey when I moved to Japan starting from July 2015.  Life in Japan has been a whole heap of challenges, surprises, mischief, ups and down, highs and lows.  Over my time living in this beautiful country, I have come across a wide variety of situations and scenarios that has given me cultural shock.  Some of the experiences are hilarious, while others are more about disappointments and frustration.  I wanted to take this opportunity to share (or purpose document and read back for a good laugh in the future) a series of interesting experiences and shocks that have happening during my journey in Japan.

  1. Rubbish Management and Japan

2. Punctuality – What does it mean in Japan?

Being on time is important at any work place.  Having had worked in a private company for over 6 years, I am fully aware and understand that time is value and time is money. Hence, I hate being late and aim to be punctual.  I sometimes even show up earlier because it just seems safer to do so.  Nevertheless, I have had times where I show up just on time where its said that the event starts.  For western cultures, event starting times generally laps over for another 5 – 10 minutes as the host would give their guests some time to settle in and such.  In Japan, totally different story.  If you are given a start time for when a meeting or conference starts, that is when it starts.  The doors will literally be closed when the clock strikes.  Someone had warned me about this and said that I should at least be there 5 minutes beforehand, but until you experience the door closing on you, you are oblivious.  I experienced this first hand when I turned up right on the dot for a reception dinner at the Tokyo Orientation I had participated when I landed in Japan for my new job as a teaching assistant.  The dinner was said to start at 6:30pm and it did, but without me.  The hotel staff managing the event closed the door on me and informed me that I needed to wait patiently outside until they felt that it was appropriate timing for me to go in.  I was totally shocked this punctuality thing was true in Japan.  Shocked, but not appalled, and I was truly (just a little) embarrassed to have the doors close on me.  Nevertheless, I learnt my lesson and aim to not let it happen again.  Turning up earlier is not considered early in Japanese culture, but more as a necessity to make sure you are there when the clock strikes at the time you were told it would start, otherwise, you will be left outside hanging.

3. Greetings – Sorry, Thank you and Good Afternoon.

Apologising and greetings are necessary whenever you see people.  But do Japanese people overly do it at times? When I get to school every morning, I say “Ohaiyogomaimasu” or “Good Morning” to everyone.  It’s a no-brainer.  An interesting I have found that people start to say “Konnichiwa” (Good Afternoon) much earlier in the day.  One of the teachers even shared with me that at the previous he worked, people never said good morning, but good afternoon regardless of the time. Weird and confusing. Saying “arigatou” or “sumimasen”. well, I say it because of the situation.  Surely it makes sense to say Thank you when someone has helped you and you say sorry when you have potentially done something to trouble others or made things inconvenient, particular if it was to a superior.  However, recently I have found that I say some of these greetings just for the sake of it.  No one ever complains if you say the greetings too many times, but I feel like the meaning is lost somehow.

4. Souvenirs.

Buying souvenirs is necessary when you let your colleagues know that you have gone for a holiday somewhere.  It is politeness to bring something back and also an expectation defined by the culture.  No one will demand souvenirs, but it was common courtesy.  So make sure you know how many people you need to buy souvenirs for.  It would be awkward if someone got left out.  I am, of course, not saying to buy a souvenir for the entire staff which could measure up to over 100 people, but as the very least, the executive members like your boss or principal and vice principal should get a souvenir; and next are the staff members in your department at the very least. If you have anymore folk you would like to give a souvenir to, that is fully your choice.  To make it personal, you should give the souvenir personally rather than leaving it at a common area for folks to access it.

5. Flat Prawn Rice Cracker.

Yes, this sounds weird, but please hear me out.  Recently, one of the teachers of my school became pregnant (wonderful news and I fully wish her well).  She was a new teacher who just joined the working crew at my base high school, but, due to this pregnancy, she decided to quit her position and take time off.  When she told me she was pregnant, I gave her a little “omamori” (protection charm) to wish her well for her pregnancy.  Leading up to her departure, she gave both Alex, a colleague who started the same time as me on the JET programme, and I a pair of wooden chopsticks with our names engraved on it. It was the best gift ever! Not only that, she also gave us a packet of rice crackers that tasted divine.  The rice crackers she gave us wasn’t just tasty, but also there was a flat prawn in it.  This sounds crazy, but this was a real prawn but made complete flat like a rice cracker.  When I saw this, I was completed amazed.  I knew Japanese cuisine was tasty and all about skill, but a flat prawn was a full new level.

6. Japanese cars are small

I am a huge fan of cars.  I love watching any movies with cars in it like Gone in 60 Seconds, Tokyo Drift and Fast and Furious. Up until recently, I owned a Subaru Impreza.  It was a very nice drive – powerful and smooth.  When I was informed by the JET program that I was coming to Japan, I was really exciting because one idea I had was that I could check out the awesome sports cars over here.  But where I live in Saitama, I’ve been greatly disappointed.  The cars in my area are awfully small here.  SMALL SMALL SMALL. Even the Ute here are small! The streets are very narrow and people drive at 30 kilometres per hour.  I know there are car exhibitions in Japan and I fully look forward to seeing them when I get a chance in Toyko.  However, I never expected that I would not be seeing nice cars on the streets.  It’s probably because of where I live.  But speaking with others, the typical working person can only afford a small car.  Seriously, even the Toyota Corolla is smaller in Japan then what I see in Australia.

7. Teaching and Discipline.

Teaching students is a hard job.  I am learning that right now.  It is an experience and a huge learning curve for me.  It is definitely hard if you are not prepared or you have certain expectations which could leave you feeling a little disappointed.  I sure felt like this today.  I even felt a little discouraged because I sense there is a gap or barrier between myself and the students.  I have had to deal with some rude students in class so far, and I have heard some pretty surprising stories from my fellow colleagues on what they have had to deal with.  It’s definitely different to what I had expected or imagined Japanese students to be.  Most people expect Japanese students to be obedient and disciplined because of the culture, but this is totally not the case.   It can get really bad in classrooms here depending on the type or level of the school.  I work at two schools where one is high academic and one is average level.  Hence, I have seen and worked with students with attitudes of two extremes.   With bad students so far, I have had students sleep in my class or speak to me disrespectfully such as “why don’t you speak English, since you are Japanese?”.  You’d think that I could discipline the students, but the mentality here or,  should I say, my job description does not allow me to do so.  Japanese teachers do not tend to scold their students and rather let them be.  Interesting don’t you think?

8. Japanese Students

What is your imagine of Japanese students?  Conservative? Obedient? Well-mannered?  Sure, I would agree too for the most part.  During my time working as an ALT so far, I have found that Japanese students are quite hardworking.  I have no idea when they study but I always see them doing their club activities after school or doing some other activities such as speech contest or debate practice.  They spend hours of their day at school and tend to leave school late at night such as 7 or 8pm.  I sure as hell did not do this back when I was a high school student.  Japanese students seem so busy to me and I just don’t know how they do it.  It is amazing and I have full respect for these students. Nevertheless, on the other hand, Japanese students can be horrible.  I mentioned earlier under “Teaching and Discipline” section where I had some experiences dealing with rude students.  It is a shock to have student who won’t stop talking or sleep in your class.  Most times, it’s because they lack motivation and can’t see why they need to learn English.  It’s sad and a little heartbreaking at times, because having students who do not co-operate is just horrible.  On another spectrum, Japanese students can indeed be very hardworking.  They pay full attention in your class or at least remind respectful for the entire time.  For those students who are hardworking, I actually feel they are too hardworking.  Listening to the schedule for some of them, you find out they sleep about 6 hours per day! I would have never been able to surprise like that when I was a high school student!

9. Alcoholic

What is your definition of an alcoholic? Well, I am not here to say what an alcoholic is or how one becomes one.  Based on my observation since arriving in Japan, I have found that Japanese people are drinkers.  If you are ever catching a train late at night to go home, there is bound to be at least one business man going home who is drunk.  Japan work culture is very stressful, so can you really blame people for using alcohol as a way to de-stress?  Furthermore, I have had a few discussions with my colleagues and so far, what I have found out is most of the folks I work with are drinkers.  I have also been asked me whether I like alcohol or not.  My answer was “I love alcohol”.  Their response was “Ohhh you will be very popular at Enkai”.  Japanese have this event that they call Enkai, which is basically a gathering of the staff members at work and they eat and drink.  I have yet to join an Enkai, but I will keep you posted how that goes should it happen.

10. Biking – What’s considered safe or not?

I bought a bike in Japan.  I was very proud to buy a bike as I am a beginner.  Fortunately, like everything, practice makes perfect.  I am far from perfect but I sure am getting better at traveling on my bike.  Given I only had 4 lessons with my dear uncle back home at the beginning of last year and I hardly ever had time to ride my bike back home, this was a big accomplishment for me.  Though, in Australia, when riding a bike, you would wear helmets or be strongly encouraged to do so.  In Japan, I haven’t seen anyone wear a helmet.  I haven’t seen a helmet for that matter.  There is no law enforcing people to wear helmets, but there are rules about not being allowed to listen to music while riding a bike.   Isn’t it interesting how they enforce “no listening to music while biking” but not helmets for safety purposes?

11. Work Culture

Japanese are hardworking people.  This is not an overstatement. I think other cultures have this view of Japanese people in general but to experience it is a whole new thing.  I, personally, am a hard worker.  Some who know me would even say I am a workaholic.  Back in my old job, I often heard, “work life balance”.  These words do not exist in Japan.  In a Japanese working environment, downtime does not come easily.  Japanese people have this mentality that they need to work and work and work for as long as the company requires them to.  People are able to take annual leave (NenKyuu) off, but it doesn’t happen often.  What I have also found out is if you try to make a request to take annual leave, it is actually quite hard to take it off or take many days off because the mentality is to work, work and work.  I am amazed the lengths people go to get their work done.  It almost feels like Japanese people don’t have families or friends when you see how long they stay at work.  Another interesting aspect that I have learnt from this work culture is that if you are at the bottom of the food chain, you have many many many jobs and tasks to take on.  This is somewhat opposite to a Western business environment, because most of the time when you are new, people may not want to overload you with work, unless you are found to be capable to do the job.

12. Debating

As part of my job, I get involved with judging at high school debate contests.  My school has a debating team, and so far, we have had two occasions where I was the judge and the students did multiple matches a day where the compete against other schools.  My first impression of debating in Japan was it was completely confusing.  The structure I found was completely different to debating in Australia.   It’s been a while since I debated (like primary school) and I recall that we had three speakers.   In Japanese, there are four speakers – constructive, attacker, defence, summary.  What really got me was that the students would have their scripts rather and they would speak in English as a very quick pace.  Unfortunately given that I am still adapting to the local accent, it resulted in me not knowing what they say.  It was a shocking experience when I was judging for the first time.  I was not familiar with the structure nor format.  Thankfully, I have had some ‘senpais’ help me.

13. Random encounters.

To date, I have had about a number of random encounters with lovely old Japanese couples during my travels so far in Japan.  I don’t know why but I seem to get lucky with meeting these wonderful people.  They either notice that my friends and I are speaking in English or they realise that my friend looks western; and they simply want to engage in conversation.  All in all, it has been quite fascinating.  So far, some of my encounters have involved a chance to drink with a professor from  Nagasaki university and his wife; getting invited to eat ramen at a famous joint in Nagasaki; getting invited to enjoy the night lights on Mount Inasa by a taxi driver who willingly gave my friend and I a 50% discount for the trip (so 5000 yen rather than 10000 yen); and also been given Okinawa souvenirs by complete strangers when a friend and I had dinner at a restaurant at Kawagoe.  What can I say… People are very friendly here and I only wish I can meet and encounter more of such experiences.

14. Bread

I miss bread in Australia. Why? Because there is no such thing as plan bread in Japan.  Every piece of bread you will buy is sweet.  It does not matter if it is a loaf of bread and a pre-made sandwich, bread which should be plain is sweet.

15.  Pedestrian Crossing

There is no such thing as pedestrian crossings here in Japan.  You see one on the street, but the cars here do not follow the rules as what would be expected back home which is give way to the pedestrians.

16. Following the rules

When you see a red light, do not j-walk.  People do not do that here in Japan.  Even if the lights are still red and there are no cars on the road, people will wait til it turns green.

17. New Years cards

Do you write cards for Christmas and New Year?  I sure as hell can tell you I don’t usually do this.  Over the years, if I write cards, I would only write to a few friends of mine.  Close friends.

18. School Festival

School festivals such Bunkasai and Kakasai are crazy events at school.  The students go all out during these events.  What you learn about via anime and manga are not lying at all.

19. Listening to the sound of water while going to the toilet

Recently I noticed there was a noise that goes off on the toilet when I am doing my business.  The noise was a water trickling sound produced by a device attached on the wall of the toilet. I later asked about this and found out that Japanese people are conscientious about making sounds when they do their business in the toilet.  The water trickling sound is actually a cover.  Ain’t that interesting?

20. Busy trains on Saturday

On a recently Saturday, I went to a debating matching as I was judging at the event.  As I was approaching the train station, I thought I would get a seat on the train as I make my way to the school holding the debating event.  It was wrong.  The train not only didn’t have seats, but also didn’t have much space to stand.  The train was packed with people. This was 7:13am in the morning and there are heaps of other folk also going to work. Very strange and completed destroyed my idea of wanting to relax and potentially sleep as I was making my way to work.

21. Cassettes and Record players

I found cassette and record players in Japan. They still exist in this high tech country.  It is both astonishing and strange.  My schools still use tape recorders as well.  Anything see why this could be wrong?

22. Summer vacation IS NOT vacation

School vacation at a Japanese school is a little different to western schools.  The major difference is the kids still come to school.  Some for the so-called club activity, others and have make-up classes because they failed that subject.  There are also extra classes for students to join voluntarily for those who want to study more during the “holidays”.  If you ask me, it’s weird.  For Japanese teachers, they don’t work by the usual busy schedule but they have to come to school or else they need to take annual leave to be away. I mentioned club activity before.  Japanese teachers have a responsible and are allocated to a club and need to be there to supervise as well.  On the contrary, western school are much simpler.  School is closed and no one is around.  Hence, as a joke to the teachers, I would always say “夏休みは休みじゃないです。ただ、夏だけです。”. Thank god for my job role, I don’t have to care about extra classes nor club activity.

23. Hidden ways to respond to Japanese letter

I recently got invited to attend a Japanese wedding by a female colleague.  She gave me the invitation card and insisted I reply and return her the response card as soon as possible.  I verbally said to her that I will come and put the invitation in my bag.  After that, I completely forget to return the card because I thought the verbal response was suffice.  Some day at work, I saw a male colleague who was also invited to the wedding handing in his invitation response card for the wedding.  Right at this moment, I remember the card in my bag and immediate reached for the card.  I took out the response card and saw there was “出席する” and “ご出席し” written at the top of the card.  These are Japanese words that mean “Attending” and “Not Attending” respectively.  The card also provided some text lines.  I circled attending, wrote a congratulations message and handed the card back to her.  The moment my colleague saw my response card, I sensed something was wrong.  The male colleague also saw this happen.  He then told me the way I responded on the card was incorrect.  I was very confused.  The male colleague explained that when replying to invitation cards in Japan, you do not circle your attendance option.  First, you need to use lines to wrong out the option that you are not using.  Second, strike out the “” character in front of the chosen response.  Third, on top of that “” character, proceed to write a Japanese Kanji character that means “congratulations” and continue your message after the Japanese characters of the chosen option.  Fourth, on the lines, also write a congratulations message.  Fifth, look for the “行” character that would appear after the recipient’s name (the bride in that case) as it is printed at the bottom of the card.  And replace it with “様”.  The reason for step five is to show respect when you are returning a response back (and in actually fact, Japanese people do it all the time when replying to letters).  I was a bit disoriented and felt like I was accused of being impolite.  I had no idea it was this complicated.  I also felt that it was unfair to assume that I knew this, meaning they should of told me first hand what to do as there were no instructions about any of this.  At the end, I wasn’t asked to amend it.  Talk about learning something new.  This one was a shocker for me.