First (Year) Impressions

My first Japanniversary  (sorry, I couldn’t help it!) is approaching fast and it has lead me to ponder how my perception of Japan has changed throughout these 12 months.

Before moving to Japan I had visited the country briefly on a 3 week summer holiday. Back then I lived in the land of China – which is a completely different story altogether – but the profoundness of my dislike towards China was a beautiful stepping stone to falling in love with Japan. And fall in love I did.

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The incredibly polite Japanese

If the Japanese people had a superpower it would be their politeness and following good form. From the first moment I landed in Japan I was absolutely gobsmacked about the bowing, subtle gestures, soft tones and the amount of “thank you”s. The overall politeness was the first thing I noticed and until this day it remains one of the most important things I really treasure in Japan, every single day.
To the exception of one socially awkward, semi-retarded German traveler I have never heard any outsider criticize the Japanese as impolite people.

Although what many tourists don’t quite realize is that the Japanese, though very polite on the outside, are not always as sincere as might appear at first glance… Politeness is such an important part of the society that everyone simply MUST demonstrate it in everything they do. Many shops, for example, hire people especially to welcome shoppers: so the staff stands at the entrance of a shop and act like human speakers who repeatedly shout “welcome” every few seconds. I actually met a Japanese student who worked part-time in big electronic store where his main responsibility was to shout “welcome” every 5 seconds to customers entering. Surprisingly enough he hated his job.

But it doesn’t end there. In everything they do, the Japanese must show politeness towards others. To be rude is almost unheard of. Work places, schools, social gatherings of all sorts are all integrated with a routine of polite gestures. People behaving politely out of habit, no matter how they feel on the inside. The Japanese have a term for this; “tatemae”, which means fake politeness and which is shown to people out of obligation. Opposite to this is “honne”, which is when the Japanese feel comfortable enough with another person to reveal their true feelings. Only good friends would let the “tatemae” crumble down and admit their real thoughts.

In a way it has been a relief to find out that Japanese people are not always so damn polite – they merely act like robots on occasion. I definitely prefer the culture of pretending to be polite to the Western equivalent where everyone seems to have an attitude more often than not.

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A rule society

The abundance of all the rules was definitely a surprise when I started to settle down here. First thing I struggled with was trying to get a local phone number. A tourist can not buy a SIM card (though tourist SIMs with internet only are available at high price), obtain a phone number nor buy a phone. If I desired to get a local number I needed to be a resident and hold a work visa of minimum one year. Mere annoyances at first, which I didn’t realize were just a funky warm-up for other rules to follow.

Renting an apartment, opening a bank account, changing an address, getting a job – all these things seem to have been made as difficult as possible with several rules and of course the paperwork to follow. I can not tell you how often I have visited government or other offices repeatedly to take care of very simple tasks such as a change of address, creating an automatic payment from my bank account or submitting a form of any kind. Surely in every country certain things are difficult and require complicated paperwork to be filled out, but to me it seems like in Japan there is always a pile of forms to be filled out. For a person who has a natural dislike for bureaucracy it can definitely be a challenge.

It would almost seem like the Japanese are unable to function without a guideline of rules to different situations. In fact, if I’m completely honest, sometimes I am somewhat terrified of the leashed mentality of the Japanese people: in some cases the rule society seems to have killed free thinking, the ability to think outside the box.

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Safe haven

If Japan is not the safest country in the world, I don’t know what is! I have never seen any violence here nor have I ever felt unsafe in any situation. I walk alone the streets at night without any fear for my safety. Everywhere you go Japanese people feel trusting enough to leave their belongings, such as handbags or smartphones lying around public areas without the risk of someone snatching them so I have adapted a similar sense of reassurance. I know people who don’t lock their front doors – though somewhat ironically everyone does lock their bicycles.

This is the country where they will run after you if they accidentally gave you too little change or you forgot your sumbrella in the shop. When someone offers you their help you can usually trust they’re not doing so only to benefit from you. I have never been ripped off in Japan nor has a local ever tried to take advantage of me as a foreigner.

As for people or a society I doubt you could find a safer place in the world.

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5 thoughts on “First (Year) Impressions

  1. Actually it is the same in Australia and Netherlands, where trying to get a phone line as a non resident is impossible. As a EU citizen perhaps you never felt those inconveniences while living in Europe – of reporting at the “foreigner police” in Holland to obtain stay papers, but Japan is not that different after all! As for fake politeness, try doing business with them. You cannot tell if they are saying agreeing or just saying yes politely to acknowledge!

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  2. Hey Mel & Suan,
    indeed, as someone who possesses an EU passport I rarely have any difficulties living abroad. In Australia I was even given the same healthcare benefits as the locals! In China and Japan I have encountered problems that I have never even thought about when living in Western countries. And just perhaps not speaking the local language is not really helpful..
    I agree with the business aspect you mentioned: it’s impossible to know when the Japanese people are merely being polite or actually agreeing wholeheartedly. It definitely creates problems outside a business environment, too.

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  3. I’ve never lived in Japan, but it is my sincere wish to do so. I’ll avoid most, if not all of the issues you mention because I’m retired. My wife is Japanese and that takes care of many things right off the bat. I’ve been to Japan six times now, and we’re headed back in September of this year. I’m still working on my language learning skills. It’s tough, but I think mastering the language enough to carry on a modicum of a conversation will get you past many of the personal barriers of the average Japanese citizen. They are always stunned when I come back with. a phrase or even a word in Japanese. But of course that isn’t so surprising. I too become instantly comfortable with a Japanese person who turns to me and says in perfect English…”So, how do you like Japan.” Whoa! Language is the key to everything. I love Japan. Reading your post brought a warm smile to my face. You are very perceptive and I truly appreciate that. How fortunate you are. Good for you!

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  4. Thank you Paul! I’m really glad to hear this made you smile 🙂 Japan truly is a unique place and it will steal your heart in many ways. Let’s both keep studying Japanese – it will be worth the struggle!

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