In our last blog post, Kevin reflected on everything that we did during our month in Japan. However, I wanted to outline some of the cultural things that we learned and/or surprised us.
We also had an opportunity to stay in South Korea for 24 hours during our layover. Even though we just scratched the surface, it was enriching to better understand the history of Korea pre and post the Korean War. The museum was wonderful and had a whole wing honoring the soldiers who died battle.
Please note, these are assumptions and things that I have observed based on my own experience. If you disagree or have things to add, please share in the comments below.
What About Japan Intrigued Me
I seriously want to start a business that imports goods from Japan and sells them in the United States; there were so many smart, useful products on the market that are unbeknownst to us. Notably, the toilets.
Do you hate touching toilet lids? No worries. The lid opens as you enter the bathroom.
Are you scared to pee in public? No problem. With a click of a button, you can turn on a waterfall, flushing noise or even music to mask the sound of your pee.
Hate the smell creeping into the family room after you leave the bathroom? Don’t fret. These toliets deodorize.
To me, the best feature of all is the ability to spray and dry your behind. I played around with the buttons in a Taco Bell in Osaka. Since everything was in Japanese, it took me a good 5 minutes to figure out what “Stop” meant.
To us, jay-walking has become a norm; while, in SE Asia, you literally just have to walk in front of traffic to get people to drive around you. In Japan, people will not walk across the cross walk without the stoplight turning green. We would be on a one-way one lane street with no traffic and there would be a group of people still waiting for the signal!
There is “cuteness” all over whether it be people’s style, how they decorate or certain treats they eat. Cute sells foods that look like teddy bears to kitty cat everything.
There are two sections in Tokyo that we visited that exemplifies this trend. At the Harajuka Station, you can walk through the pedestrian street to find everything that embodies unicorns and rainbows. From rainbow cotton candy to funky multi-colored stockings, you will also see people who live this style permanently, dressing up in the streets and dancing.
The other place that we visited was Akihabara which is known to be the anime part of town. We visited one building with 10 floors of different anime collectibles that people sold for hundreds of thousands of yen. In our time there, I don’t think that I could begin to understand this culture, but we both did get into catching Pokemon on the Pokemon Go app.
Lack of English
This was one of the first countries that we went to that didn’t have English menus or English speakers as easily accessible. Spoiled, I know. How did English start to become the universal language? We have theories, but that is not for this post.
The Google translate app was a must in Japan to navigate parking, trains and menus. We went into a “Soba” restaurant which is a buck wheat noodle. Kevin and I looked at the waitress and said, “Soba?” trying to place our order. This is the equivalent of us going into a pasta restaurant home and saying, “Pasta?”
Many thanks to Mike for teaching Kevin the kanji for “ramen”. This allowed us to find a couple ramen places and order it.
From our Japanese friends, many people actually do know English. However, they are afraid to use it in fear of messing up. Understandable as that goes through my mind in every country we visit.
People wear face mask throughout all of Asia. Depending on the country, it seems to serve different purposes. As an example, people in Vietnam and Cambodia often wore them while riding motor bikes. From personal experience of inhaling dirt after a semi-truck flies by, it makes perfect sense.
Our Taiwanese friend explained that people in Taiwan associate the face mask with fashion; they come in all different colors and patterns. Secondarily, people relate beauty to being white and the mask keeps the sunlight off of your face.
In Japan, it is more associated with allergies. We were fortunate enough to go when the cherry trees (Sakuras) bloomed so many people were wearing them. A few of us even gave it a go when riding the Subway to Tokyo. Trust me, mints are really hard to eat while wearing a face mask!
Peeling Back the Layers of their Culture
We met so many native Japanese people that were incredibly thoughtful and just fun to be around. Quick real-life example, Akira, Mike’s friend, went 30 minutes out of his way to pick up duct tape for us to help us fix Kevin’s bag. He also took us to his favorite Ramen places. Everyone that we spoke to that has lived in Japan an extended period of time says that Japanese people are very loyal and will be your friend for life.
But besides this, I have an overwhelming feeling to try to pull back the layers of the Japanese culture and better understand the various cultural rules that impact people from a macro perspective.
Like all cultures, there are certain “rules” passed on by generations. These morph and shift with various facets of individuals. But to me, it seems like tradition and cultural rules seem to hold more truth to the masses compared to other countries. The below is just partially what I began to understand from my time there and conversations with people.
A Culture of Respect
Respect is a foundation in this culture. You will often see two people bowing at each other for minutes until the next person gives in. Our friends told us that they have to formally greet anyone who they know that is older from them. This is incredibly different from us in the States. I can remember many times when I “act” like I don’t recognize people to avoid awkward conversation.
A Culture Who Likes to Avoid Confrontation
Our friend recommended that we read a book by Kazuo Ishiguro called The Artist of a Floating World. This book sheds light on the Japanese mindset post World War II. Another major takeaway for me was simply the way people spoke to each other; It seemed like everyone was abiding formalities and walking on egg shells to not offend people. Conversations took five minutes to get to one point in a round about way.
A Culture of Hard Work
This one kind of makes me sad. During our visit, it was not uncommon to see loads of men and women (but mostly men) in black suits coming home from work on the subway at 9 pm to 10 pm. They work six days a week and it has become engrained in them that hard work equates success. I tend to wonder if this happened after the American occupation after WW2. It seems to be a mirror image of what the U.S. was like in the 50s. I think slowly over the years companies have been able to see the importance of work life balances. Realizing that employees who are happy in their personal life tend to get work completed faster and at a better quality.
It also saddened me to hear more about the suicide forest or Shinjuku spot on the Tokyo subway. These are notorious for being places where people go to kill themselves painfully. Seppuku(suicide) has been around since the time of the samurais in the 12th century. Samurais carried a small sword with them at all times and were trained to disembowel themselves before being captured. This even held true for the wives of this prestigious class of people.
In another book (“Unbroken”) we learned the following statistic: “The 1941 Japanese Military Field Code made clear what was expected of those facing capture, ’Have regard for your family first. Rather than live and bear the shame of imprisonment, the soldier must die and avoid leaving a dishonorable name.’ … For every Allied soldier killed, four were captured; for every 120 Japanese soldiers killed, one was captured… at Australia’s Cowra camp in 1944, hundreds of Japanese POWs flung themselves at camp machine guns … in a mass suicide attempt.” We saw the same concept hold true with kimikaze planes and has still morphed into modern day Japan. For Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world with 70 people taking their lives every day in 2016 (Source: BBC).
I feel like the U.S. has become more open to discussing suicide in the family system. Music has also started to address the concept trying to demonstrate someone’s mindset as they would be thinking about this and also the repercussions of their actions for their loved ones. Check out Logic.
I hope the same will happen in Japan.
A Culture of Drinking
With that being said, Japanese people party hard. No, this is not just the college students that we hung with. But, people go out for drinks and let loose. There were many times that I saw people puking in the streets or business men drinking Strong Zeroes after a long day. Like many of us, alcohol can allow people to let go of personal inhibitions or even break through some of the cultural regulations to be a ‘truer’ version of themself.
A Culture Rooted in Tradition
Above any countries that we visited, I personally felt like the traditional aspects of the culture were more visible. Specifically…
We saw people wearing the traditional Kimono taking pictures with the cherry trees.
Many people still sleep on traditional tatami or straw mats with mattresses.
Man, its’ crazy to me how little I knew (still know) about Asian culture in general. This is a great, funny video that outlines the history of Japan in a nutshell.
We were able to go to South Korea for 24 hours. We did it right from watching K-pop performances on the street to eating delicious Korean BBQ. You are able to grill the pork belly, onions, kimchee yourself and then wrap them in a lettuce leaf. They also provided salt/pepper mixture and a chili paste to add a little zest.
We also went to the Korean War museum. What are some things that we didn’t realize about the war?
Audra and Kevin Arendt: Digital Nomads, World Travelers, and Midwestern Americans. To learn more, see About.