5 Things to Think About in Japan – The Downer Edition

Since I’ve been doing a lot of lists about things in Japan that might not be known by the people in my home country, I’ve decided to do a more thoughtful list. But, this list isn’t as happy-go-lucky as the other ones, so be prepared to think and wonder.

1. Japan has a lot of nice countrymen–so nice, that the usual codes don’t feel like discrimination. I’ve read stories of foreigners in Japan being turned away from clubs, bars, and other places because they aren’t Japanese. For those who don’t know Japanese, you probably won’t understand the situation until someone points it out. For others who do and have learned Japanese culture and code, it will always be a shock and disappointment. I’ve learned that Japan can still have close-minded people or methods. For example, when I went to open a bank account, the bank requested that a letter of employment from me–and the person who I went with was a bit angry. “That’s discrimination,” he pointed out later, and I didn’t understand until he told me that this was his first time hearing this and he’s helped many people open bank accounts in Japan. Another example happened more recently. My husband and I decided to check out a nearby bar that had pool. Right when we walked in, a bartender stopped us and kindly stated, “You must have a member’s card.” We were refused before ordering a drink. Everyone else in the bar was Japanese. This event also happened to some ALTs on mainland Japan, who noted it in a JET writing contest, the code of having a “member’s card” or being a “VIP” as the same thing. So, before anyone thinks that Japan is a quiet haven free of stereotypes and discrimination, remember that Japan was once closed to the rest of the world for several decades.

2. The quality of service in Japan is one that makes Western countries pale in comparison–or is it? In the United States, everyone expects McDonald’s hamburgers to be slapped together without a care, or other people to ignore you when you’re in a state of need. In Japan, it’s a little different. Food is made with more care, presents can be wrapped at any store, and people generally help you out when you look like you need help. My husband made a great point when he looked around with fresher eyes than myself; “Is it because the quality in Japan is so good, or is it because the quality in my home country is so bad?” My answer would be the latter. Why? Individualism has to have sacrifices, and one of them is human decency. The mantra, “Think of yourself! Buy for yourself! Be yourself!” rings more strongly than “Think of others! Buy for others! Be kind to others!”

3. Image is too important. When I went to a soccer match for one of my schools, all of the students that weren’t involved in the sports had to go to the match to cheer on their school. I sat there with my students–and became immediately bored and disgruntled. Why were these kids sitting in the hot, sweltering sun in these thick uniforms? Most of them were digging in the dirt or trying to stay cool. They weren’t even paying attention to the soccer match, and some teachers lectured them about it. What’s the point of dragging these kids to “cheer on” their school if they don’t want to? To form a stronger bond with their school’s team when the players don’t even realize they’re there? Or is it really just about images, like the image that there’s so many people to support you because there’s bodies in the stands? This is something to see in every aspect of Japanese life, too. Going to a nomikai, or a drinking party, is attended by a whole office to reinforce bonds for working. A non-drinker could feel left out, so why should they go? For an evening of watching other people get drunk? Or is it image again, the image that there’s unity amongst the office workers who really don’t know each other?

4. Everyone does everything hard–school, work, and playing. Students start studying rigorously for exams in junior high school. Adults work well past 5pm–sometimes until 8 or 9pm–just to complete a report. Additionally, adults can party hard in Japan. Lined on every street, there are armies of izakaya, or bars. Some you can recognize simply by the red lanterns glowing outside of their doors. Others are openly advertised with 100-yen beers on banners. Many adults go to these bars, drink until they’re drunk, stumble onto another bar, drink, maybe go to a karaoke place or bowling, then go back to drinking. And this can happen on any given night, most of the time, immediately after that 10-hour or more job. It’s really common to see a salaryman stumbling through the streets drunk. But does all this de-stress people, or does it add to the stress? It’s not like their livers are getting any better at filtering beer, work, or studying.

5. As a teacher, there is another close-mindedness that extends beyond the classroom. Many people just assume that as a foreigner, you don’t speak Japanese. For example, in meeting my husband’s school principal, he could introduce himself in English very well. Then, he looked at the Japanese librarian and said in Japanese, “She’s cute.” I said to him in Japanese, “Thank you,” and his eyebrows went up in surprise. In class, it’s fine if the students struggle a little bit to find the English word–they’re studying the language and every bit of practice can help them on their tests and in the real world. But as an adult, it’s somewhat sightly to see the internal struggle. Just say it in Japanese, and if I don’t understand, it’s not a big deal. Gestures work too. English, or any other language that’s learned, doesn’t have to be perfect. This is where students and people get in an unnecessary panic. I, as a native English speaker, simply just appreciate the willingness to try to communicate in English.