Monday, April 28, 2008

Five Mistakes Made By First-Timers In Japan

Prior to coming back to school, I worked for a Japanese company for several years and used to go to Japan periodically on business trips. In all my travels, Japan is the one country and culture outside the U.S. that I became most familiar with. If you've ever seen Lost In Translation, there was a point in my life where I basically lived that movie. (Well, other than the girl.)

Japan remains one of the most fascinating countries I have ever visited. The culture is completely unlike the West in ways that are far better understood through experience rather than explanation. It gives a deep richness to the people and the country, making every trip there a journey of new discovery.

Matthew Firestone
shares my perspective:
I've always argued that the real appeal of Japan is simply that it's an incredibly interesting country to explore. Even after living here for more than five years, and spending literally thousands of hours jumping over the linguistic hurdles of Japanese grammar, I still suffer from a fair bit of culture shock on a day-to-day basis.

You see, I guess that's really the gist of why Japan is so appealing to foreigners like myself. No matter how hard you try to assimilate, there will always be more challenges to overcome, especially if you want to penetrate the heart of one the world's most closed societies. Simply put, life in Japan is anything but boring.
Matthew then goes on to share some tips on mistakes to avoid for people visiting Japan for the first time, most of which I made in some form or another:
Of course, there are dozens of cultural landmines that must be dodged on a daily basis here. And on that note, I present to you today five mistakes made by first-timers in Japan.

1) There is no word for no.
2) Be mindful of your footwear.
3) Go easy on the ramen.
4) Learn how to use chopsticks.
5) Don't date club girls.
Below are my own experiences with each one:

1) I can't tell you how many headaches #1 made for my American and Japanese co-workers and me. We literally spent months talking past each other and needlessly pursuing projects because the Americans didn't understand when the Japanese were trying to tell us no.

2) While I never wore shoes inappropriately in a person's home, I did make a few mistakes in a couple of ryokan (Japanese inns) I stayed in. I also never could quite get used to taking shoes off and wearing slippers in some parts of factories and museums (particularly at World Heritage sites), or slipping off house slippers to put on toilet slippers when going into the bathroom. I also learned the hard way that it's considered rude if you sit on a desk.

3) Fortunately, I never had too much trouble with the food in Japan (although during my first trip, I had a few nasty surprises when I discovered what it was that I was eating). Unfortunately, my reaction to food was not so favorable during a taxi ride in South Korea...

4) My first business trip to Japan was for 5 weeks. When I left, I was about as inexperienced as could be eating with chopsticks. My hands ached by the time I got back home and I wore food on several occasions during those weeks, but I haven't had a problem since.

5) While I never dated a club girl, I did have a Japanese girlfriend once. All I will say is that she completely broke my heart...

Despite its many pitfalls, I still love and miss Japan dearly. I hope to get back there again someday soon.

P.S. -- Here are a few less common mistakes I made in Japan...
  • Getting locked in a bathroom in my hotel room in Japan in the middle of the night -- I had to yell for help for about 30 minutes, hoping someone who spoke English could hear me.
  • Accidentally hiking with three Yakuza (Japanese mafia) down a mountain on Miyajima Island, just outside of Hiroshima.
  • Running full-speed into a glass door at my hotel in Kobe, just like a bird flying into a window. (I was running to catch a bus and the automatic door didn't open as fast as I thought it would.) My nose-print was on the door for days afterwards...
  • Nearly spending my last bit of yen while sight-seeing in Nagasaki -- I ended up back at my hotel in Kobe with less than a dollar in my pocket and no ATM in sight.
... and a few other blunders I've made elsewhere around the world.


Clint said...

"Accidentally hiking with three Yakuza (Japanese mafia) down a mountain on Miyajima Island, just outside of Hiroshima."

I want some more details on this one! You can't just leave it that vague!

James said...

I know this hasn't been touch on in a loooooong time, but I agree with Clint. Did you just recognize the tattoos or actually have a conversation with them?? Anything more would be great!