Henna Nihon (I of III)
‘Henna Nihon’ is a three-part series about some dude’s experiences while living and working in Japan—Part I details ‘First Impressions, Lifestyle, & Mentionable Oddities
Oh, Japan. The love-hate relationship I have with this wonderful nation is nothing short of unique.
In 2015, I left Australia armed with a pocket dictionary and semi-know how of holding chopsticks, and headed to Japan to start my life as a teacher.
The country is immaculate. The streets of Tokyo to the back alleys of Osaka are clean- you could (daringly) slurp ramen off any train station bathroom floor. People put shoes on their dogs before taking them for walks, and public toilets don’t have buttons- you just wave your hand in front of a sensor to flush. You never wear your shoes inside, even in restaurants. Always take them off at the door. It makes sense that a country with so many people and so little room value cleanliness.
The country is conservative. Most people have their window shades drawn and even fewer (people, not shades) wear shorts. Up until 2014, Japan enforced a ban on dancing after midnight because police believed it would cut down on drug trade and crime. You won’t find a Japanese person sitting on the ground or on steps. Everyone on public transportation values silence, and no one has his or her music too loud or is eating a Sammy. It’s considered rude to eat in public. (Although they do drink in public)
I would not even recommend laughing on public transport- you’ll get some glares.
The people are polite. You won’t find issues of aggression in public, and if you drop something, everyone scurries to help pick it up. On top of this, gaijin (foreigners) get the ‘gaijin-card.’ Basically, if a gaijin does something stupid or wrong, it goes on without a problem because the Japanese won’t tell foreigners to stop. Although, do note that ‘politeness’ and ‘niceness’ are not one in the same- more on that later.
The country is safe. Never in my life have I seen 7-11’s leave cases of Redbull sitting outside the store, just take on inside if you’d like to pay. If you’ve lost something, it always finds its way back to you. People have strong societal bonds and believe in group-integrity and honesty. It’s beautiful really- I wish we practiced it more in the west.
The country is organized. During my entire stay there, I only encountered one late train. People wait in perfect lines for the train to arrive, and shift right and left respectively to let all passengers disembark before boarding. There are disaster drills for earthquake warnings, and when drills occurred everyone received a text, with a special alert tone, at precisely the same time. It’s eerie being on a train, a single sound emitting from everyone’s phone at once, and everyone pulling their phones out to read it.
Japan is weird. Seriously though. Japan is a strange place to us westerners. Every day you see things that just… don’t make sense. (See: Why is the theme song of Jurassic Park playing in the train station?) Sometimes they work themselves out and you understand, and sometimes… you don’t. Shortly after arriving I noticed that many people of various ages had rows of dots on their left or right arm, all perfectly column-ly spaced, in a roughly 3 across and 6 down pattern. I later learned that when Japanese are still children, they receive all their vaccinations for life/school all at once, from what I can only assume looks like an archaic torture device.
The Japanese are the hardest-working nation of people I’ve come across. Most spend their entire lives droning to and from work, and it shows in their moods. Many of my clients while teaching business English were very unhappy with their lives, and how they seldom saw their families. The endless sea of corporate zombies in suits flooding the trains day and night, attests this. They live by very strict work and life rules and in many companies receive routine beratements publicly for failure in performance reports. Even if you are late for work due to a delayed train, you have to receive a ticket from the train station for proof.
I had an Australian friend who worked in a copyright firm between Australia and Japan, and one day during a meeting, her manager reprimanded her rudely in front of the entire staff. She felt understandably upset by this and told the company that she was quitting because she felt humiliated in front of her colleagues. The company, of course, didn’t want to lose a valuable employee so they asked her what would make her stay. She asked for a personal apology, and eventually did receive one. This entire situation is completely unheard of in Japan, a superior having to apologize to a subordinate for something (public shaming) that is so common in the workplace.
Outside of work, the Japanese like to drink. They have izakayas (salaryman bars) everywhere, and drinking and smoking are legal almost anywhere you can imagine. Want to drink a beer on the subway after work? It’s both legal and common. It was standard practice after work at my school for everyone to say their goodbyes to the actual Japanese staff (staying late hours) and head down the local ‘combini’ (convenience store) to hang around outside in the street and drink beers.
The Japanese are very family oriented with most living at home until they are married. More recently, it’s become common for university students to move out of home if they go to school in another prefecture. Other than this exception, anyone I met who hadn’t married still lived at home. It is also common for a man to move into his wife’s home soon after they marry in order to save funds for a home purchase. The idea of leaving home at eighteen is unheard of and uncommon for most of society. Sometimes, when discussing my travels, I’d get ‘Your whole family moved to Antarctica?!’
The mentionable oddities
Blood types – Some Japanese view blood types as westerners see astrological signs. Each blood type is associated with certain character traits, temperament, and compatibility with others. The pseudoscience is particularly common with housewives. Sometimes during parent-teacher conferences many mothers of children I taught asked me what blood type I am. After telling them, many times they would nod and say, ‘oohh!’ or ‘That makes so much sense!’
Smoking and Drinking – It is perfectly acceptable to drink in public, including public transportation or buildings. Many businesspeople on their train home have a beer in hand. It is unacceptable to smoke in public, but always allowed in any restaurant or bar.
Counting – In western cultures, we have number names for:
10 (ten), 100 (hundred), 1000 (thousand), 1,000,000 (million) etc. This impacts how we count, because the number 10,000 is read as ‘ten thousand,’ or ‘10 counts of a thousand.’
In Japanese, they are identical to ours as far as thousand. Then, they count by 10,000 (called mon)
So, 100,000 to us is one hundred-thousand, or ‘100 counts of a 1000.’
To them, it’s ‘ten ten-thousands,’ or ’10 counts of 10,000.’ This only gets more complicated because their numbering system is also based off multiplication tables, unlike ours.
We have allocated terms like ‘teen,’ where we say ’16’ (six-teen) they say ’10-6’ (ten-six). Conversely, if you want to say 60, you say ’6-10.’ (six-ten)
Yanki（やんき）– is Japanese for thug. At first, I thought they just kept talking about rude Americans.
Gift giving – Gift-giving is very common, especially when someone is a friend or you want to say sorry. It’s awesome how coworkers are always buying treats or little trinkets for everyone else; it’s just a societal standard and it’s awesome! This also goes for apologies. When a private company or a state-entity wrongs you, you also receive gifts. When I opened my state-bank, they kept messing up my western style name and I twice had to come back in. On both occasions, I received practical gifts including dish detergent, dish soap, and sponges. This also segues well into how most prizes in Japan for small competitions or office lotteries usually involve winning food- the first place winners getting meat, the lower-placed winners receiving carrots.
Fire escapes – Many buildings’ fire escapes are simply slides down to the first floor.
Hippocratic Oath – Japanese doctors don’t swear to it when finalizing medicine practice. Take that as you will.
Train stations – Most stations have pictures of a grassy knoll or something of the like, and recordings of bird chirping to make you feel more… in nature? I always felt as if it almost reminded me more that I was in a concrete jungle.
Garbage trucks – play cute musical songs. Still not sure why…
Zoning Laws – Someone once told me Japan is the real life internet, with adblock turned off. I could say that is an accurate statement. From what I can tell, there are no zoning laws in Japan. People can set up a ramen shop next to your house if they so wish. Many times, there is loud music coming from restaurants in a downtown district, and this floods into the street. It’s rather annoying, but I’m also assuming they don’t have noise ordinance laws as we do. In residential areas though, I would believe the Japanese too polite to ever noise pollute. This must relate to…
The street address system – In the west, we have random named streets, and when one proceeds down said street, the even numbers are on the left and the odd numbers are on the left. Or whatever, don’t be nitpicky. Japan said nope to that. Japan bases theirs on areas, going from big to small. Here is my street address from Japan:
547-0026 Post code
Simple enough, right? No. Within my sub-ward (which is generally an area of about 60-100 blocks), I could be anywhere. So how do they organize and find addresses? Without Google Maps it is nearly impossible. The Japanese label their buildings based on when buildings erected and how far they are from the city center.
The first number (4) is my building number, determined by when the building was built. Mine was built fourth on my block, apparently. The second number (7) is for my block, and the third number (16) are based on the proximately to the center of my municipality. In the event you don’t have Google maps, and don’t know the local block timeline, you’re going to have a heck of a time finding an address.
White Hands – ‘White Hands’ is a non-profit organization in Japan. They provide up to three orgasms a year to handicapped individuals who are unable to masturbate by their own means.
Calendar – The Japanese have incorporated the Gregorian calendar, but it is common to find the Nengo (ねんご) system on many official statements, such as bank statements. It works by labeling years as eras, which the reigning emperor names. The eras begin at one (1), and continue for the lifespan of the emperor. We are currently in the Heisei Era, and it began in 1989. In Nengo the date is ‘Heisei 28.’
Hanko – The Japanese don’t use signatures for official statement declarations- they use something called Hanko. These are stamps that have your family seal on them, or in my case, my name written in Japanese Katakana.
Love & front-fringes,
Post (kinda-depressing) Script: Net café refugee