So after living in Japan for 4 months and I think I’ve gotten a very genuine exposure to the education system, daily life, and managing at least some interpersonal-ish relationships (it’s very hard with a language barrier to make Japanese friends, but more on that later.) As I am always writing about how I have a deep love for the things Japanese culture with regards to what the culture produces / what they allow / how available and modest they always are (to a degree what some people would incorrectly refer to as being a weaboo or Japanophile.), today, I want to write about the things that have more so frustrated me about living here. AKA – the differences that I understand why they happen, but not necessarily why they are important nor will likely ever accept them at my core being.
So here’s the first in a collection of articles about my experience here in Japan, ending in just over a month. I think you’ll be very surprised to find that my experience was not very far off from a lot of Japanese stereotypes.
Let me start by saying I don’t want to stereotype. I’m not saying by any means that what I say applies to all Japanese people or parties. I’m not one for common stereotypes. After living here, I don’t think things like all the Japanese look the same (but I recognize I have difficulties with face recognition). Japan is different from a lot of countries (especially America) in that it’s government actually represents it’s people as an ethnicity.
Do we have that in America? No, not really. Most of us still call ourselves “Italian” or “Irish” or what-have-you in descent. We don’t even have a lot of nationally-recognized traditions or culture. Everyone in Britain has their tea time and extended lunch break. Infact, it’s built into the UK law that you should. In China they have festivals to celebrate the change in seasons, or specific holidays. In Korea, seasonal food is huge. Very few things are eaten year round, and those are considered national foods everyone likes. Does that mean every UK citizen who works gets an hour break at work everyday? No. Does that mean that every Korean likes kimchi? No. Does that mean that every Chinese person is at the Spring festival? No. But every British, Korean, and Chinese person knows when and what those celebrations are (either daily, seasonal, or otherwise) and that a large majority lot of people thoroughly enjoy those things. Can you think of things like that which are exclusively American? It’s hard right? We definitely don’t have one ethnicity. Comparably, we can acknowledge that there are a lot of Chinese people in China. There are a lot of British people in Britain. Japan takes this to a whole new level. 99% of the Japanese-speaking, Japanese ethnicity, and Japanese people are in Japan.
Sure there’s a small faction of Japanese who went to Brazil after WWII, but who cares about that. I say that derogatorily because in fact, I’m sure a lot of Japanese people would say that if a person wasn’t born and raised in Japan, then those people aren’t Japanese (especially if they’re half-blood). Why? Because they don’t contribute to Japanese society. (Infact, I heard that directly from a Japanese guy in a local bar in Ikebukuro who happened to speak ridiculously good English. When I asked him about how the Japanese people do such a good job of ignoring homeless people, he said “It’s not our way, because we know those people can’t give back to society.”)
Anyway, back on topic. The point is, I’m not stereotyping but when it comes to the Japanese specifically, you need to recognize that what “everyone does” is what is accepted as normal and that they very much so like that. The whole society has very strict social norms for not invading other’s privacy, or asking what people really think about things. Furthermore, America is a country that is very much so the opposite of that. Sure, you’ve heard this before, but let me assure you that experiencing it for yourself is it’s own level entirely. The whole “everyone does this at this time”-thing just really doesn’t exist in America. It exists in most Asian countries, the French are very particular about their language, there are rich histories in countries like Italy and Germany, but do we have obligations or necessarily even a huge knowledge of what “other people” are doing on their “holidays”? Hell no. And most of us don’t care to know, either.
What you do on your holidays mostly comes from your chosen religion, or what your family have always celebrated. This makes what people do at the largest a religious event, with no majority on anything. Usually, most people keep to their households and family to decide what’s an important day to take off. Thing’s like it’s Dad’s birthday, or it’s your anniversary. Who gives a shit about Valentine’s day or Hanukkah? I don’t get off for those holidays. It’s part of our Constitution to accept and let people freely worship; but at the same time that doesn’t mean that we include ourselves as part of that. Infact we think it’s offending to label everyone as doing the same thing. This makes the only completely neutral and safe “American holidays” things like Thanksgiving, New Years, and maybe Memorial/President’s day or other such real-historical or religious-neutral nature of events. Even so, we can’t say the majority of Americans consider things like Martin Luther King Jr. Day a “real” holiday in thought or celebration.
Well, why is this a big deal? Well, when you live in Japan, you’re expected to be a representative of your culture. Japan is a culture that celebrates similarities. You are rewarded for doing the same thing as others. America’s is a culture that celebrate’s individuality. Infact, we may be devoid of culture except for this very point. Not to say we’re devoid of teamwork though, when the individuality is strong enough, you will attract or hire a very strong group of people who do the same thing, making minority action and revolution a very strong valued part of our history. So from a young age we’re shown that being one of those great people who brought upon a revolution of change (like Thomas Edison or The Wright Brothers) is something desirable.
From this inherent difference also comes a completely different sense of standards. Saving a philosophical debate of what’s “right and wrong”, or a cultural debate of what’s considered “right and wrong” in Japan and America, think about when you do something “bad”. Why was it bad, what was bad about, who is it considered to be “bad” by. In America, there’s a lot of consideration into intent and motivation to the point where thought-crime has almost pervaded our justice system. In Japan? That doesn’t exist. Hypothetically, if you have terrible thoughts, and do something like draw up plans to kill someone by creating an elaborate system of piano wire to cleanly slice someone’s head in your local park, masturbate everyday to cartoon drawings of naked children, or write a program to steal 500 yen from everyone’s bank account – as long as you don’t disturb anyone else by doing so and keep to yourself – it’s completely okay. Well, maybe that’s not “okay”, but it definitely isn’t outrageous enough to be considered illegal. As long as you don’t put a name to a person to kill, stalk an underage girl, or hit execute on that program and don’t talk about such things in public – no one is going to bother you.
In America (at least these days, with more than radical interpretations of current and implementation of new law) those sorts of things are outrageous, right? Why would you order piano string, write that program, or look at disturbing fiction unless they really wanted to do that. The second someone walks into your room and sees blue prints for a piano string hookup using a local park for architectural dimensions, finds parts of that code on the internet, or a risque image of that cartoon child in a bathing suit, it’s actually their responsibility to inform the police about it. Any jury would put you in jail for criminal intent. Sure, not everyone would run to the police, but most people at the very least you would make feel uncomfortable. Why? Because it’s outside of their personal moral standard. Infact, having those things in your own possesion in America could even make one feel guilty. Why? Because it’s against your own “personal moral code”. It doesn’t matter if someone else doesn’t know about it, it’s still bad. In Japan, should that coincidentally happen people have a social norm for respecting your privacy and not jumping to the conclusion you would actually do those things. To the Japanese, something that doesn’t bother anyone else can’t possible be “bad.” No thought or planned action that does not surface into reality is completely fine. Within yourself, there is no limits if you are being a normal, respectful, member of society.
Maybe this is a bit of a stretch, but a medieval history college class I took tells me(and I’m sure any anthropologist would agree with me) that this individual-intent system we have comes from the fact our current culture and government derives from either a “God” always “watching over you” or against “your own honor”. Our personal moral code is taken from what we feel is right or wrong. To the Japanese, this is the opposite. A standard of “No one is more important than anyone else.” and “As long as they do not hurt other’s, or other people don’t know about it.” – any sort of secret, idea, or otherwise is okay. When other people know about it, they shame you into believing you did something wrong.
I’ve actually had this happen to me once, when I didn’t finish my homework for class.
One Wednesday night after a barrage of tests (had two that week already), running on 3 hours of sleep, it would be a good idea just to turn the alarm off, come home, and crash until I woke up. I was really stressed out because I learned my mom had just put into the hospital for cancerous tumour removal (she’s okay now) and my grades weren’t the best. I was also frustrated over a lack of money, being in slight financial duress. So, I came home at 3PM and woke up at 5am the next day, made myself breakfast, watched some anime, caught up with my friends in America (it was evening for them), and refreshed for class Thursday. I told my teacher very politely I didn’t have my homework that day, there wasn’t any excuse, and would be happy to turn it in after class.
Man did she flip shit. She slammed the books from the other students she collected and told me to look at them. She said things like “look at the hard work of everyone around you”, and demanded to know why I didn’t do my homework.
I would like to note, that I am 22 years old. (We have a curfew of 11pm too, but more on that another time.)
When I told her I don’t have a particular reason and would like to discuss it after class, she started yelling at me, asking me who’s money and time I was wasting by being here. She turned to everyone and told them to look at “how I was wasting my own time”, and “what a disgrace I am”. All the Asian students started whispering to each other in their native languages and looking at me.
Fortunately, my personality is akin to that of Gilgamesh. I had no qualms or breakdown about this (though I know many people who would of given up and apologized.) At this point I honestly couldn’t believe that this was happening to me. Are you kidding me, 犬先生？You should be lucky I’m here paying your pay check. Though the reality of the situation doesn’t register to her, and why I was not instantly apologizing also does not register to her. For 犬先生, it’s for my own good. To her, I am ちがう. I was not doing what everyone else worked hard to do, and extraneous circumstances are irrelevant.
We are the Borg, and you will be assimilated.
To be honest though, I kept quiet. I figured saying anything from there would make the situation worse and in some senses was actually speechless at the whole event even happening in the first place. I’m also not an asshole. I realize this is a normal thing for their culture, and I am not in my home country. If I wanted to put any truth to the “diplomacy focus” of my degree, I had to have some tolerance for other cultures even when they deeply offend me personally. I mean, had this been America, I probably would of stood up, left, and headed to my dean’s office – or I might of rallied a couple students to fight with me on the fact she was yelling for no reason on the grounds that it’s completely irrational, and helps no one — not that this would ever happen in America (beyond elementary school) if the teacher had any common sense or understanding that an adult student’s life does not revolve around homework.
So being too speechless to respond to the damn near bi-polar snap, I just sat quietly as she moved on with class. However I didn’t feel bad for not doing that homework. I was perfectly justified in my reasoning to not do it, and I think health wise it was a good decision. However, the collective was supposed to do it. Therefore, in the eyes of the Japanese, I am wrong for not doing so. I’m pretty sure in the Japanese perspective, if I came home, did my homework for 3 or so hours, and then entered a state of not sleep and worry over my mother – as long as I did my homework and showed up, everyone would support me, and it would all be okay. It’s okay if I suffered for the entire day, because everyone would of been there to support me.
I have never been so proud to be American.
But more on the specifics of the Japanese education system later…I just wanted to show some both radical and real examples of how different the cultures could be, in situations both for the benefit of the doubt and against an individual living in Japan.