From the Foreign to the Familiar
What Bob Should Know: Insights on Moving to Japan[box]From the Foreign to Familiar will address the complexities of being a foreigner in Japan and the importance of learning through observation and engagement. This column will debunk the unique customs that are often deemed weird or strange by Westerners, and provide insight into deeper meanings and definitions of intimacy, family and community in Japanese culture.[/box]
“I am freakin’ out. It is one week before departure. Quick! Write more articles so I can feel ready”
That was the Facebook message I got from Bob, a friend and former student who is moving to Japan this week to start a teaching job.
Bob knows some things about Japan in an academic way. He studied the language for a few years and took a culture class. He plays lots of video games. He has read about shoes, names and hugging. He has enough familiarity with Japan to know that he is getting himself into something vastly different from the life he currently knows. And now, with one week until take off, he is feeling a little anxious. So Bob, this one’s for you.
You are going to Japan for work, so your experience is going to be different from that of a tourist. Foreign tourists, particularly Western ones, can make all kinds of innocent social gaffes and they will be forgiven. New entrants to the working world also get some leeway, but are expected to pay attention and figure out the rules, which are rarely explicitly explained in full. One thing of the first things you need to be prepared to do is give a short self-introduction speech, preferably in Japanese, when you start work. You don’t get to be the new guy without attracting some attention.You will be brought to meet the principal of the school where you work and will also be introduced to the full faculty, as well as to the student body. Your intro should include the typical “nice to meet you” greeting, your name, where you are from, a mention of a hobby or interest and end with a few sentences to the effect of “I know I don’t know anything but I will work hard to learn, so please bear with me and teach me.” The self introduction is not a time to publicize your skills or how awesome you are, it is to identify you as a new member of the group who is willing to learn how to adapt and to also give a few pieces of personal information that others can use as conversational catalysts. Keep it short, simple and humble.
The last time I saw you, you told me, “I feel like I’m just going to be bowing and apologizing to everyone for everything all the time.” That’s actually a good start. There is a lot of bowing and apologizing in Japan. Apologies in Japan are social lubricant, not an admission of guilt or wrong doing. So be prepared to do a lot of bowing and apologizing. When you enter a room where there’s a meeting or conversation in progress, you apologize saying “shitsurei shimasu.” Same thing when you leave the room or leave work at the end of the day before others have gone home. If someone does something nice for you, like bringing you a cup of tea or moving over to make room for you to sit on the train, you say “sumimasen”, which is like a combination of “excuse me” and “I’m sorry.” The golden rule in Japan is Do Not Cause Inconvenience to Others. Anything you do that requires someone else to make an effort to accommodate you calls for some level of apology.
If you want to feel like you’re doing things right and are not, as Dave Barry puts it in Dave Barry Does Japan some large, loud water buffalo tromping and pooping all over the exquisitely tended garden of Japanese society, you should always be looking for ways you can make other peoples’ lives easier or make them feel better. This includes things like not running your washing machine at night so the noise doesn’t disturb your neighbors, offering to help out with a team or club at school before you are asked and, of course, giving up your seat on public transportation to others less hearty than yourself. Like it or not, you will be seen as a representative of your culture. You will also get many, many things wrong. That is how you will learn. Don’t let the shame of making a mistake prevent you from learning the lesson. And keep in mind the old Japanese proverb, “To ask is a moment’s shame. To not ask (and remain ignorant) is an eternal one.”
There is an easy trap to fall into if you are a young foreigner living in Japan. With the number of questions you get asked about yourself and the attention you attract just from being young and foreign, it’s easy to think that you are truly fascinating and all you need to do is talk about yourself and everyone will be happy and entertained. Or maybe you just keep talking to kill the moments of silence, which seem less awkward to Japanese people than they feel to many foreigners. If you wait for Japanese people to offer up similar information about themselves without ever asking questions, you’ll spend all of your time talking about yourself and can very well miss that the person you have been blabbering at about your cat or your high school sports career is a fascinating and accomplished person in their own right. Learn to ask the right questions. Ones that can’t be answered with a simple yes or no. Ask for help or advice about social customs you don’t understand. People will rarely correct you and will feel that it’s rude to tell you you are doing something the wrong way. Instead let them help you by asking for their advice. It’s your job to ask, not their job to tell you first.
Be on time and always dress up more than you think you need to. In Japan on time means five to ten minutes early and fully prepped and ready to go when starting time comes. The trains run on time. Work starts on time. People even show up to parties on time. We both grew up in a part of the country where dressing up pretty much means wearing something that is not a t-shirt, jeans and sneakers. I felt perpetually under-dressed in Japan, even when I tried to do it right. I was invited one weekend by my university’s English Speaking Society to judge an English speech competition. I wore an ironed blouse and khakis, figuring that would be fine for a Saturday afternoon event that required me to ride the train for three hours to get there and back. About midway through the afternoon, in the ladies room, one of my school’s students came out of the stall in her navy blue suit and heels and said, “Oh. I’m sorry no one told you this was a formal event.” This was probably the only time I was blatantly called out on dressing too casually, but certainly not the only time I did it. Appearance can be just as important as performance. Don’t worry that you will be overdressed. I can guarantee you, you won’t be.
The more people compliment your Japanese skills, the less impressive they probably are. You are going to learn very quickly that if you are able to spit out about five Japanese phrases people will rush to praise your proficiency. They will also do the same if you manage to move a piece of food from your plate to your mouth using chopsticks without dropping everything in your lap. Don’t believe the hype. The proper response to all this praise for your skills is “I still have a lot to learn.” This is the proper response if you have been there one week or twenty years. You will likely then be told you are more Japanese than many Japanese people. Don’t believe that either. You aren’t and you never will be.
Life will be easier for you if you are an omnivore and willing to eat things even if you have no idea what they are. Some foods will be new and strange, like natto (fermented soy beans). Wait and watch how other people eat it if you aren’t sure how. The first time I ordered cold soba I had no idea how the noodles on a bamboo mat and the small bowl of cold broth worked together. Pour the broth over the noodles? What do I do with that little plate of sesame seeds, scallions and wasabi? Turns out you stir the items on the little plate into the cold broth and pick up a mouthful of noodles with chopsticks and dunk them into the broth before eating them. It’s delicious, if not necessarily intuitive. And there may well be times when you eat a familiar food in a familiar way, only to discover you are doing it wrong. How was I supposed to know when a friend’s grandmother served us grapes that you are meant to spit out the seeds and the skin? I knew when everyone gave me a funny look and I saw what they had delicately put back on their plates. Oops. These things happen and you’ll feel better if you can laugh about them.
Be prepared to be bone-crushingly lonely at times. Leaving your family and friends and moving to the other side of the world is a tough thing to do. Sure the internet and Skype make it less isolating than it used to be, but those things can also remind you of what you are missing in real time. Japanese language and culture are hard to learn. You might find yourself having days or even weeks when your progress with the language feels so slow and you’re so tired of people looking at you that you don’t even want to go out and deal with the guy who sells you beer at the convenience store. Push through it. You will come out the other side. Find a skill or hobby you would like to learn and join a group that does that. You can’t really learn about Japan without becoming part of a group.
You are going to be a different person after this year. If you use your time wisely, you will come out smarter, kinder, more perceptive and with a deeper appreciation for things you used to think were simple. If you shut down because it’s too hard, you will come back bitter and bone-headed. Most of all, keep in mind that you are going there to be useful to others. You are, like me, a shy person who has chosen to be a teacher. You make yourself get up and face a room full of people every work day, whether you feel like it or not.
This path chose you as much as you chose it. Keep your eyes and ears open and walk it.