6 More Things to Learn When Living in Japan

Here are a few more things to learn when you’re a foreigner living in Japan:

1. Everyone loves to say “kawaii” (cute), “kakkoi” (cool), or “ikemen”  (slang – cool or hot) whenever you wear, say, or do something interesting. It seems that Japanese people are always watching you, especially when you’re a newcomer. If you’re new to an office or school, people will notice even the smallest things about you, like your hair, earrings, bracelets, watches, or clothing. It’s a little more daunting if you’re not used to being watched, but for teachers like me, it’s a good conversation starter in English.

2.  You’ll get invited to everything. Whether the invitation is from other foreigners or from Japanese people, there is a need for everyone to invite you to every event taking place in the city. For foreigners, it’s just another chance to hang out with part of the 4%-foreigner statistic in Japan. For Japanese people, it’s a way of showing off their culture that most foreigners would be unaware of.

3. If you know how to use chopsticks, you’ll get comments wherever you go. Because there’s this misconception that foreigners don’t know how to use chopsticks, if Japanese people see a foreigner eating with them, they’ll point out in Japanese, “You use chopsticks very well.” If you come to Japan to work or teach, you’ll hear that incessantly. It’s just a way for Japanese people to get to know you. (For me, I tell them that I’ve used chopsticks since I was in high school because I knew I would come to Japan one day.)

4. It’s hard to get anywhere with “maybe”. It’s more of a cultural thing than foreigners realize. In the United States, “maybe” means that you’re considering something, but there is no clear-cut “yes” or “no”. If you say “maybe” when talking to a colleague in Japan, unless they’ve lived in a Western country before, most Japanese people will take it as a “yes”. Also, most students don’t learn the word “maybe” until they’re in senior high school, so using it freely in a conversation with junior high schoolers and elementary school students will get you confused stares. Be careful about saying “maybe” when someone invites you to an event you don’t want to go to. They’ll be expecting you to show up!

5. Customer service runs really high in Japan. Even if you’re a customer in a McDonald’s, you won’t find customer service like that in Japan. Being a foreigner who hasn’t studied Japanese, going to a fast-food place can be a little scary because everything is written in Japanese. However, most places in Okinawa has an English, Korean, Chinese, and/or Spanish menu ready for foreigners. There are some restaurants on mainland Japan where the menus have Japanese with English translations. Aside from language, places like airports are really impressive with customer service, though they must be strict with the rules. Recently when my husband and I were at Haneda Airport looking for their popular roll cake, a worker told me that they didn’t have it at their shop, but she called around to find which shop had the roll cake. She directed us and when we arrived, the other worker was ready with roll cake in spite having to close in that last few minutes.

6. Advertised food actually looks like the pictures. More than likely, when you order something, the food actually looks like the pictures. It’s not just slapped together like someone didn’t care. There isn’t too much of anything on it (unless you’re a picky type). Just right.

Mega Burgers from McDonald's

Mega Burgers (2007) from McDonald's (source: supersizedmeals.com)

There’s Strange Kamaboko in the Window!

In Odawara, there’s tons of shops with their signature kamaboko (かまぼこ), or fish cake. If you’ve ever eaten or seen naruto (not the blond heathen from the series) in real ramen dishes, kamaboko has a similar texture and taste. A real fishy taste, like a sweetened fish was added to its smooth but firm existence. Most of the time, kamaboko is the half the shape of a circle with a pink outer layer and a white inner layer. When I showed this image to my co-workers, they were impressed to see the various shapes and colors of these kamaboko.

The Usual Kamaboko

The usual kamaboko with naruto (Picture from zakkalife.blogspot.com)

Mixed Up at Dinner in Odawara

I’ve noticed that many food menus in Japan,especially bars or drinking places, don’t stick strictly to Japanese food or Asian food in general. You might find french fries (フライドポタト – fried potato) right next to the gyoza. Either way, you should try it!

Eating Okonomiyaki in Ginza

My friends took us to Ginza to eat okonomiyaki, a kind of Japanese pancake or pizza. “Okonomi” means “favorites” (but not to be confused with “My favorite thing is…” in usage) and “yaki” means “baked” or “grilled”. It has so many ingredients in it, like noodles, cabbage, Japanese herbs, and shrimp, depending on the type you order. We ate the Osaka-style okonomiyaki, which is different from Hiroshimo-style okonomiyaki. It was delicious, but the best part was when the waiter put the mayonaise on every okonomiyaki we ordered. It was such a showmanship of skill, I had to share it!