If there’s anything I’ve learned about Japanese culture, it’s that there is a time and a place for everything. The language doesn’t just have ~9 different levels of politeness on how to ask a question, its also supports the strict social norms for not asking about people’s individual thoughts, ideas, or emotions. The way you learn the language and how education is taught also supports that. In fact, the whole society (though not exclusive to Japan, it is especially true in Japan) has a system of what is more or less expected of you to do and say at specific intervals.
And of course, foreigners are expected to know nothing of what is expected in those times and places.
In fact, to the Japanese, a foreigner knowing how to speak Japanese or act properly is probably one of the most ridiculed and funny things in their modern society. Nothing is funnier when you walk up to a foreigner and say “Excuse me.” and then reply “すみません。”. I’ve had people blatantly laugh (it’s a huge rarity for the Japanese to do a blatant-anything) at me when I asked what floor an item would be on, where something was, or what I should do in a certain situation. At first I thought I might of said something wrong that was inadvertently funny, or my accent sounded strange (and that was certainly the case at first), but I grew to learn that sometimes these reactions were for the sole reason that “He’s a foreigner who can properly ask for something.”
Which is somehow, the funniest thing in the world to them. I won’t even get started on the level surprise that I get for being able to use chopsticks even though they know I’ve been living here for FIVE MONTHS.
I don’t remember quite where I heard or read this, but I remember someone telling me once “A foreigner in Japan doing things properly is about as funny to them as a cat who can play piano.” It’s probably true.
Though anyone who comes here on an extended tourist trip could easily learn that. What I’ve learned through my international study abroad experience, is that anything out of place whatsoever provokes some sort of emotional response. If you know the proper way to do something, but for whatever reason choose to go about another way (in order to prove a point), you’re considered straight-up a jerk or ignorant fool. If you don’t know how something works, everyone will rush to help you so you don’t bother anyone else/society isn’t put out of order. It’s the collective’s job to make sure everything is done properly.
The Japanese aren’t interested in learning about foreign culture when they are in Japan. Sure, there are some who want to talk to you, and there are some who go abroad, but those people are expecting those situations. It’s their island, not yours. When you’re there, you’re probably intruding just by being in their daily life. I’ve gotten used to the everyday stares walking down the street, but when a girl turns an aisle and sees me there she goes wide eyed and 180′s to prevent an awkward situation.
The whole society builds itself around doing the right thing at the right time. It rushes with all it’s efforts to maintain the standard. You’re expected to say certain things at certain times, and not doing so is ちがう. In fact this is built in from the education structure itself. You’re expected to memorize long sentences from textbooks, which will reappear on tests in their fundamental forms.
You’ll realize this when Japanese people try to talk to you in English. They will say things like “Hello” and if you might respond “How ya’ doin’”, and they will completely lose it and give up. But if you reply “Hello, nice to meet you.” they might instantly say “Nice to meet you. I am from Chiba.” If you say “What sort of place is Chiba like?” they might respond “Thank you for saying that, I appreciate it.” This is because they heard “like” and “Chiba”, and gave their textbook response. I’ve heard of English teachers in Japan having similar experiences.
As a student you’re expected to do the same thing. You don’t need to think about or understand the language, you should just know the textbook example. Clearly if you know the textbook example, you know the grammar form for all situations. This doesn’t just apply to language learning, but for everything. Infact, it’s the heart of education structure that you’re drilled to know certain things in class for hours every day, spend hours every night memorizing it, and as thus – it builds itself into daily life in Japan.
And trust me, I can tell you from experience that no amount of teacher discussion (even at an International school), situational-cultural explanation to natives, or otherwise will ever change that. If you don’t do what’s expected of you in a certain situation, you are wrong for not knowing it or an egotistical asshole for choosing to do otherwise (aka putting your own thoughts above everyone else’s).
Never mind that half of my classmates who are getting A’s can’t handle basic conversations, they know what to say out of the book. When you examine essays, you’re expected to pretty much copy the sentence out of the essay that related to the question (maybe add から) at the end for “because”. I’d imagine for Japanese students learning English, the English they are learning only applies to when they meet foreigners, when they want to do business with foreigners, or the examples for when they want to take entrance exams.
I don’t even understand where it starts either. Kids here are definitely not like that. I regularly see middle school students playing, pushing each other around, laughing, rough housing, or otherwise acting like normal kids. The high value for these situations must have roots in the upper level educational structure, when they get their first job, or otherwise.
To me it just leaves this big question of where does the Japanese culture I’ve been interested half of my entire life come from? Some of my close-in-age or younger Japanese friends at the arcade are not so rigid. I can read posts online from thousands of Japanese twitter accounts that are outright rude.
And let’s not even get started on anime.
Actually, now that I think of it – just where do those overly expressive character designs, outbursts, and clear display of emotion that shows up in anime come from? Is it another time-and-place thing where “because this is anime, it’s expected to have a lot of emotion”. The actual term they use for the anime community here is “sub-culture”. I think those people who really like anime or related works are just reaching out for their individuality, but in fact, they live in a collective society, so they only know how to like it as a group, or talk about it on the internet. Another time and place scenario.
Thankfully they put art and private thoughts as something that should at the very least be protected (even though not promoted). In that sense I think art (consequently and surprisingly, this means manga/anime/games/otherwise) is something very important to this culture. However, that innovation is almost bothersome to the daily structure. For example, if it’s in a game it’s okay. If it’s in music, it’s okay. If it’s in writing, it’s okay. If it’s in an anime, it’s okay. If it’s at your job, it’s ちがう. If it’s at school, it’s ちがう. If it’s talking to your grandfather, it’s ちがう. And you spend a lot more time at your job, school, or social superiors than you do by yourself (if ever) in this country.
Now I’m not ignorant. You’re not talking about how funny you thought Kodomo no Jikan was at work, or telling your grandfather how cute and strong spirited you think Nanoha is in America either. It’s probably not a good idea. But I’m not talking about how there is always a time and place for your interests, but more so asking why the culture must have a time and place for you to think, innovate, or be yourself. We all must fit some social norms and roles, but writing a film and literature essay for college class shouldn’t mean I can’t write about the character designs in Kara no Kyoukai just because it’s animated.
But it means you shouldn’t in Japan. I don’t get it.