Japan is strange, but not for the reasons you might think.

For many, when thinking about what kind of country Japan is, the first thing that usually comes to mind is that it’s not normal or that it may even be one of the craziest places on earth. After all, with all of its fetish shops, wacky cosplayers, and bizarre festivals, how could it be anything but weird? Surprisingly, however, it really isn’t — at least not in the way you might be thinking. Yeah, it has a bunch of really strange things, but what country doesn’t? Take for example the United States, like Japan it has its fair share of odd TV shows and commercials over the years, be it well-known shows like Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim or lesser-known and slightly creepy things like this ad for Little Baby’s Ice Cream in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania . When it comes to traditions we’re not much better either. Take for example the President’s yearly pardon of a turkey on Thanksgiving day or the fact that every year, we leave it to a rodent (a groundhog, to be exact) to tell us how much longer winter is going to last.
japan-no-further-description-required1
It’s not just the US, either. Whether you’re from Denmark or India, we see these things all the time on social media, meme sites, and even on our way to work or school. For some reason, though, we tend to dismiss these things as an occasional oddity, rather than focusing on them and ignoring the normalcy that is far more common. This isn’t to say that there isn’t anything overtly strange that exists here, in Japan, however. There are numerous — maybe even countless — cultural norms and customs which are completely foreign to westerners, and for those who aren’t used to them, they can be more than just confusing, but frustrating as well. Take for example the idea of tatemae; put simply, it is just the idea that one should put on a public face and avoid expressing beliefs or doing things which others may disagree with, in order to maintain harmonious, positive environment. The problem is, however, that for many Japanese people, it can be difficult to balance tatemae and the expression of one’s honne (true feelings). As a result, even when eating at a restaurant, some people may even reiterate, time-and-time again, just how delicious the food is — even if it is only average at best. In actuality, although it isn’t necessarily tatemae, more than a few Japanese people that I have met during my time here overly praise and complement everyone and everything, regardless of whether or not it is actually needed.
As a foreigner, especially one with a higher level of proficiency in Japanese, this will likely become apparent, relatively quickly. You will likely find that even being able to read simple kanji or able to say something like “konnichi wa (good afternoon),” you’ll be met with things like gasps, clapping, and a bunch of people mentioning how amazing you are and how skillful you are with Japanese — although, it’s quite difficult to believe that they are genuinely impressed and makes it difficult to tell when they truly are. Herein lies one of the biggest oddities of Japanese society: the popular misconception that foreigners simply cannot speak Japanese and that Japan is so unique that foreigners (especially westerners) cannot do or understand things in the same way they do. In fact, it isn’t rare to be asked, “Can you eat raw fish?” or have someone exclaim, “Wow! You can eat with chopsticks?!” while dining with them (as a non-Asian foreigner, that is). These questions and statements are so bizarre that it’s difficult to imagine hearing foreigners gasping and shouting out, “No way! You can use a fork?!” or asking, “Can you eat cheeseburgers?” to their Japanese friends.
Nonetheless, this rather odd way of thinking will likely change as more foreigners come to Japan and become proficient with Japanese. As for its other peculiarities, there are literally hundreds of ways in which Japan is strange. Please, feel free to share your stories and let us know how what your experiences are and what you think is strange or not about Japan!

Communicating in Japan

Coming to Japan for the first time can be a thrilling and exciting journey; but, like any new experience it can present numerous new – and sometimes unexpected – challenges. Whether you have studied Japanese for years, in your home country, or you’ve only recently started, mastering communication will likely be one of your most difficult tasks. As with any language, Japanese has an almost limitless number of ways in which one can express him or herself, and considering the sheer number of words and phrases in Japanese, having gaps in one’s knowledge of vocabulary or phrases that pertain to new experiences can be common, making even something like ordering food, for the first time, a bit of a challenge.

Only eight months ago, having just arrived in Japan – despite studying at my university in the US for roughly three years – this was my experience. Being at an upper-intermediate/lower advanced level, I could easily hold conversation with friends and discuss what I needed to in my classes. Because of that, something as simple as ordering take-out, paying bills, or even going to the doctor’s seemed like an easy task – one that I didn’t need to think about or prepare for. However, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Like many students who are traveling abroad for their first time, I never actually learned the vocabulary that was necessary to deal with these everyday situations, and having a gap in knowledge of vocabulary, I found myself constantly needing to consult my dictionary and even rehearsing what I was going to say, in order to avoid the confusion and frustration that I was afraid would occur if I didn’t.

The first time I came to understand this was going to McDonald’s and having the sudden realization that I could talk about history, culture, or even basic psychology, but had no idea how to say that I wanted to order my meal as carry-out. Having just been asked “店内で召し上がりますか (Will you be dining in?)?” Being my first time ordering take-out in Japan, I had no idea what the common word for take-out was in Japanese, and being afraid that she would just assume that I didn’t actually know the language, I quickly blundered, “いいえ、外で食べます (No, I’ll be eating outside.).” Had it not been early September, this may have been sufficient; however, likely assuming I was planning on sitting at one of the tables which was out front of the store to enjoy my meal in the warm summer sun, she promptly grabbed a tray out for me and handed me my receipt. Noticing that she misunderstood what I was trying to say, I quickly apologized and explained that I was planning on eating at my dormitory. Thankfully, there was nobody waiting behind me, and listening patiently, she asked something along the lines of “あっ、持ち帰りですね (Ah, take-out, right?)?” and everything worked out pretty well. A bit embarrassed by the whole experience, however, I avoided going back for more than a month (which wasn’t difficult, considering how many amazing restaurants there are nearby).

Looking back, that was probably one of the most educational experiences I’ve had, since I began studying Japanese. It taught me that as important as it is to be able to engage in fun, interesting conversation with a wide variety of people, it’s also important to prepare yourself for the less frequent, but equally important interactions which will occur during your time in Japan. Whether it’s memorizing something as simple as the word 持ち帰りmochikaeri (take-out) or something more difficult, like 糖尿病tounyoubyou (diabetes), be sure to prepare for your trip abroad, by studying vocabulary related to things like paying bills, getting a cellphone contract, talking to the doctor about health problems or concerns, or even words that are necessary in case of a natural disaster. You might not use them very frequently, but they”ll be worth it, in the few cases where you’ll need to use them in daily life.

Daily practice is key, when learning a new language.

Daily practice is key, when learning a new language.

Most importantly, however, just be sure to have fun! Although there’s going to be a lot of things you don’t know, and there will be the occasional difficult moment, you’ll make great friends and create memories which will last you a life time!

"Friendship has no boarders."

“Friendship has no boarders.”

 

The end of fast lanes in train stations in Tokyo

People in Tokyo stand on the left side of escalators leaving a passing lane on the right for those in a rush. People in Osaka do the opposite, they stand on the right side and let people rush on the left side. It’s been this way for a few decades, so pretty much everyone is familiar with this practice. When I first arrived in Japan, I was surprised in a very nice way because I thought this habit showed a high level of organization or order that characterizes the Japanese people. This custom also applies to walking on the street, but to a slightly lesser degree. However, JR East has recently placed stickers in every station asking commuters not to walk on the escalators, just stand. Have people changed this habit already?

So, what triggered this sudden change? People are so used to the current system that it doesn’t make sense to alter it, right? Nevertheless, a steady increase of accidents (on average, there was one accident each working day) in recent years and a further analysis led to one conclusion: many accidents happened because of people rushing like crazy on the escalators not to miss the next train.

I am a bit skeptical about their theory, since I was quite sure that most accidents occurred because of people talking/checking their phones or being drunk, but I do remember accidents such as this one, last April, in which a 60 year old woman died after being hit by a man falling down the stairs. It wasn’t a escalator that time, but a a normal staircase.

Although I can understand where JR East stands, what they are requesting will take too long to be accomplished. It’s basically an everyday habit what they’re trying to change. I haven’t seen any differences as of now.

Source: Wanted: better escalator manners (The Japan Times 2013)

Eduardo H.

Japan’s largest daily news

690-1GJ36.AuSt.55     TOKYO —  22 July 2013  (9:19 a.m.)  (JR Minami-Urawa station )

    Tokyo is known as one of the busiest city in the world. You can see people are fighting with their time every day. And for those who have an experience of taking train in Tokyo, you may know that most of the people in the train who will pretending like they didn’t see sexual harassment, sleeping in priority seats or ignoring people who may actually need a seat… etc etc

But,

for this time, these people are trying to save a woman who got stuck in the gap between the train and the platform during rush hour. They could actually take other lines to go to work, but they didn’t. I’m sure there was something more than that in people’s heart.

After a few minute ago, the women was then pulled out uninjured to applause from onlookers. After just an eight-minute delay, the train went on its way.

[LIKE]

Seating Arrangements

My older brother recently paid a visit to Tokyo and could not believe how comfortable my Japanese housemates were with sitting on the floor. When eating at our low table or just lounging around watching TV, my housemates choose to sit on the living room tatami despite the presence of a fairly comfortable couch. They and other Japanese friends of mine have been known to choose tatami over regular seating at izakayas and other restaurants as well.  As a foreigner in Japan, you must be ready to forgo the chair you are so accustomed to and plop yourself down on the floor. Here are a few different methods of sitting to fit whatever tatami situation you find yourself in:

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Most Polite: “Seiza” (sitting on your knees)

Quoth Wikipedia: “To sit seiza-style, one first kneels on the floor, folding their legs underneath their thighs, while resting the buttocks on the heels. The ankles are turned outward as the tops of the feet are lowered so that, in a slight “V” shape, the tops of the feet are flat on the floor and big toes sometimes are overlapped, and the buttocks are finally lowered all the way down.”

Perhaps more simply explained as “sitting on your knees,” seiza (literally meaning “correct sitting”) is the seating style that will most impress your Japanese friends and acquaintances. Seiza is to be employed at all formal occasions and is mostly appreciated at informal occasions as well. However, if you are like me, you will find that your legs begin to burn from physical exertion after sitting in this position for about five minutes, and you will likely reveal this by making a not-so-subtle readjustment to your sitting situation. At this point some kind Japanese person will usually tell you that despite their Japanese origins, seiza is a pain for them as well (people say this about kanji and keigo too) and urge you to switch to a more comfortable position.

cross-legged

Casual: “Cross-legged” (mostly for men)

“Criss-cross applesauce,” as we called it in my kindergarten class, is the most popular sitting style among men for most occasions. This position provides the dual benefits of comfort and the ability to lean over and eat at a small table. It is certainly not as polite as seiza, and I have been around people who see it as impolite in general. However, these people seem to be in the minority, and sitting cross-legged is probably your best bet to comfortably enjoy a meal on tatami.

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Casual: “Both Legs to One Side” (mostly for women)

Perhaps due to the difficulties of sitting cross-legged while wearing a skirt, Japanese women most commonly sit on tatami with both legs to one side. This has similar benefits to sitting cross-legged and is actually more comfortable in my opinion. I have seen some women sit cross-legged and some men sit with both legs to one side as well, so these gender classifications are not steadfast rules.

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Nomikai (drinking party) Only: “freestyle”

When I go out drinking with my soccer club, we are almost always in rooms with tatami, and no one seems to care how anyone sits. I guess alcohol has a way of loosening up social rules. On top of that, at my local izakaya it is not uncommon to see a drunk Japanese college student laying on the floor. At this point I know that I can immediately stop worry about whether I am sitting properly.

My advice to those traveling to Japan is to always try to start sitting in the seiza position then copy what those around you are doing. I am so inflexible that I am unable to even sit cross-legged, so I generally start out sitting seiza anyways and try to stay in that position as long as possible. If I am among friends or at a nomikai, I might lean against a wall or sit with my legs under the table, both of which are technically taboo. At formal occasions, I will do my best to sit in seiza position for the whole meal.

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“Horigotatsu” is my favorite style of Japanese seating because it provides me the tatami aesthetic with superior comfort. Upon first glance, horigotatsu looks like a regular tatami floor, but upon further inspection you will see that the area under the table has been carved out.  This allows customers to sit on tatami but still feel like they are sitting in a chair.

If you are planning to come here, please do not worry too much about sitting on tatami in Japan. People here know that sitting on the floor can be tough for foreigners and are accommodating in this aspect (although they may laugh at you). If this kind of thing really stresses you out, stretch or do yoga to get flexible before you come here.

Looking back we can see that this post has been a ton of fun for us all. Check back here next Wednesday for more analysis of mundane topics from your boy!

Rainy Season Problems

It is now June 24, and Japan is in the midst of “tsuyu,” (the rainy season) which comes every year from early June to mid-July. Being from Seattle, a city famous for its rain,  I figured I should be able to handle this no problem. It turns out that rain here and rain is Seattle are a little bit different, and I have problems.

Problem #1: The Laundry Problem

We do not have a dryer at my house in Tokyo, and I therefore have no choice but to hang-dry my clothes after washing them. This is generally not a problem, and I actually have kind of grown to like the way they smell afterwards. Unfortunately, the rainy season has really thrown a wrench into my laundry-hanging plans. Even though there is a covered area outside my house, the air is so wet right now that my clothes could never dry there. I have been advised to hang-dry my clothing indoors in these situations but I am struggling to find a good way to do that in my room. As my amount of dirty clothes continues to increase, so too does my motivation to solve this problem, but thus far it’s been pretty frustrating and I just try not to think about it.

this doesn't work in the rain

this doesn’t work in the rain

Problem #2: The Heat/Humidity Problem

Speaking of wet air, as I write this blog it is 22°c (72°f) with 90% humidity in Tokyo. In other words, the weather is hot, rainy, and above all muggy. Although it rains frequently in my hometown, we generally experience neither heat nor mugginess. Phoenix, Arizona, where I go to school, is famous for its hot sun but is also a very dry place. Thus, as I am not used to Japan’s climate at all, I arrive to class every day wet from my walk through the rain yet sweating at the same time due to the combination of heat and humidity. While I am able to turn on the fans in my bedroom to keep the air comfortable, my warm classrooms have provided me no respite in the recent weeks and I hear it only gets worse from here.

Problem #3: The Umbrella Problem

It’s not like umbrellas are a foreign concept in Seattle, but I never owned one, and neither did many of my friends. Weirdly, the concept of this umbrella-free life shocks many Japanese people I talk to. Umbrella logic in Japan is simple: always carry an umbrella when there is a chance of rain (except for sun umbrellas carried by women, but we won’t discuss that now). During my daily commute, the already-crowded streets of Tokyo have become even harder to navigate as large chunks of sidewalk are being taken up by the wide berths required by umbrella-carrying pedestrians (read: all pedestrians). It is not uncommon to see two people tangle umbrellas as they pass each other, or even worse, for a pedestrian without an umbrella to be clipped by a reckless umbrella carrier (carrying your own provides you with a measure of protection against direct contact).

I don't like this

I don’t like this

In a word, Japanese umbrella culture is advanced. Plastic umbrella-bags are provided at the grocery store to keep customers from dripping  water on the floor. Weird pieces of furniture that look like folded up tables sit outside the doors of buildings at my University so people can brush the excess water from their umbrellas onto them. And, of course, this being Japan, umbrellas can be found in a variety of stylish and “kawaii” (cute) shapes and sizes.

The real problem here could just be my continued rebellion against Japan’s umbrella culture. I can’t really even explain my reasoning as to why, but I have yet to buy an umbrella despite the fact that I walk long distances in the rain every day. Maybe it’s because I never had one in Seattle. Maybe I just would prefer to be wet than to carry an umbrella in my hand all the time. Or perhaps it is just that as I am confronted with Japanese people who cannot believe that I would go outside without an umbrella, I feel I must prove them wrong. As people continue to unnecessarily worry about me, I am starting to consider just conforming and buying one.

Problem #4: International Dorm Umbrella Thieves

Although this no longer concerns me since I moved out of my college dorm, a friend of mine who still lives there was complaining to me today about how her umbrella was taken out of the umbrella rack in the dorm’s entry hall. The practice of “borrowing” umbrellas belonging to others from the front hallway of the dorm was all-too-common while I lived there, and wise residents were sure to bring their own umbrellas back to their rooms. Interestingly, there seems to be a sort of accepted etiquette among my former dormitory’s umbrella thieves. Clear umbrellas like those found at convenience stores are fair game to be taken, but colorful umbrellas are somehow still safe. Perhaps there is honor among these thieves…

But enough small talk about the weather! Go read more important internet stuff!

Toilet Talk

Toilets are better in Japan. I’m not talking about traditional squat toilets, which supposedly provide health benefits but are in my opinion just uncomfortable (a word of advice to travelers: you are supposed to face forward when using these). I’m talking about the high-tech wonders that have become so famous for their numerous buttons and features. Where else can you control a toilet with this:

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image from digitaljournal.com

That picture looks like it’s straight out of MTV cribs! But why would one need that many buttons to operate a toilet? I confess that I cannot actually answer this question. Alas, my knowledge of Japanese toilets is but(t)  juvenile compared to some of the high-tech bathroom businessmen and women no doubt frequenting the washrooms of this fine country. However, I can hopefully explain a couple of them.

Let’s start with the basic flush. This is not exclusive to Japan, but almost all Japanese toilets are equipped with a “large flush” button and a “small flush” button. You can tell which is which because the kanji character 大 for large will be on one and 小 for small will be on the other. You can actually see these two characters on top of the panel facing vertically in the photo above. Now let’s move on to the fun stuff:

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the built-in bidet feature commonly found in Japanese toilets that has captivated foreign visitors for years. As the buttons feature drawings of water spraying into butts, you don’t really need to read Japanese to figure out what they do. A fun side-note: when I first saw these buttons in middle school I was under the impression that they would spray water up directly from the toilet bowl. They don’t because that would be gross.

In my opinion the finest feature of Japanese toilets is the heated toilet seat. Unlike the houses I grew up in, Japanese homes generally do not have central heating, and the bathrooms can be freezing in winter. There is nothing quite like a heated toilet seat for these dark times. Usually this is controlled by a knob near the seat but it can also be a part of a button panel system.

The funniest feature of Japanese toilets is the “flushing noise” button. For those who are embarrassed by their “toilet sounds,” this button will create a loud noise to drown them out.

As for the numerous other controls on the panel, I don’t know what they do and I am too nervous to find out. If any of you get into some fun times pressing them, let me know!

Here is a basic English translation I found for some of these buttons: (Japanese people tend to translate the word for “butt” into “hip”)

toilet translation

image from digitalphotopix.com

I am far from the first to write on the subject of Japanese toilets, and if you want to learn more about them or watch more weird videos, just google it!

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