Thursday, July 03, 2008

Misconceptions about Japan, in no particular order

Japan is more technologically advanced than the rest of the world

Maybe fifteen years ago, there was some kind of renaissance in Akihabara and it was a really cool, futuristic place to be. These days, Japan is generally only more advanced in (1) cell phones, (2) cars, and (3) robots. When it comes to computers and the internet, the average person is incredibly incompetent, and harbors weird superstitions about how it all works. The single computer at my office was so slow it was literally a twenty minute process for me to open internet explorer, log into my gmail, download a text document, and print it. I usually spent those twenty minutes swearing. I couldn’t even imagine trying to do research on that computer. At my office, most tasks that a computer would have taken care of back in the U.S. were done by hand. No one knew how to fix the computer, and they rarely admitted anything was wrong. Even really simple “tech support” tasks are allocated to the computer guy, and everyone else has no idea how it works. Many ALTs are met with resistance when they try to bring their own laptops to school, even when there’s no chance of it being used for the internet, because it “compromises school safety” and could give their computers viruses. I even heard of a teacher insisting that you can’t enter students’ grades into a computer that’s connected to the internet, because the information could leak. It seems like people take impeccable care of their cars and buy new ones every couple years, but if they have a computer it’s usually about ten years old. People have cell phone mail addresses, but if they have an e-mail address they probably don’t check it regularly. Also, areas that the internet took over long ago in the West are still thriving and performed by human beings here. Like travel agencies. Instead of planning their vacation on Orbitz, people actually walk into a physical office and talk to a real person who is dressed in an impeccable uniform and speaks incredibly politely. They sign real physical papers and agree to contracts and receive paper receipts and periodic calls from their agents over bureaucratic matters and everything. Crazy, right?

Most Japanese people can speak at least some broken English

People who can communicate in English are in the minority here. When I say communicate, I mean make those broken sentences that Americans who have little to no overseas experience are so fond of mocking. The people who make those broken sentences have a particular interest in English, and have probably been studying it for years. The people who are fluent have usually studied abroad, since the educational system really doesn’t support language learning so much as test taking. Most Japanese people cannot speak English at all. A lot of tourists don’t understand that this means they can speak as slowly or as simply as they like, but the random person they’re trying to communicate with will probably not understand. Pretty much every adult knows “My name is…”, and numbers, and while most people can recall days of the week they often mix them up. If you can only speak English, you should feel lucky to have been born into the international lingua franca that will get you far in most other countries. But it won’t help you a lot here. Better try sign language, or Japanese.

Japanese people are very delicate and indirect

Cultures are weird, so what we consider taboo, the Japanese might find totally acceptable. They are often indirect communicators, but they also talk freely about their bad case of diarrhea with co-workers. Every time Colin saw his old supervisor, she used to comment that he’d gotten fat. I’ve heard of this happening to foreign women too, but it thankfully hasn’t happened to me, because I’d probably cry. I’ve only had people insist that I’ve lost weight when I probably hadn’t, which was just their way of expressing general concern for me. Then they’d talk about their kidney stones and someone would share information about a kind of sugar that cures constipation.

Before coming here, you should have your business cards ready

Yes, business cards are a big deal, and a lot of people will give you theirs. It’s useful to study what to do when you receive one (take it in both hands and look at it for a while, nodding approvingly while holding it awkwardly or setting on the table in front of you until the person leaves, at which point you can pocket it). However, unless you are coming to Japan for business reasons (business meaning selling things or dealing with clients) your cards are a waste. If you’re a coming as a teacher, a student, or a tourist, you do not need cards. You’d just end up giving a couple away for the novelty of it, and leaving the rest to gather dust. I’ll tell give you an example of how much business cards aren’t as big of deal as everyone says. My old company was failing, and it was obvious that I needed to recruit new students for my classes. When the company underwent a name change, they took down all the employees’ information to create new business cards. As I’d never received any business cards, I was excited. They took down my information, but the cards never came. I asked about them once, and Sayaka said, “Hmmm, I wonder where they are!” When Yoshiko told me that she needed me to pull in more students, I told her I could better do that if I had business cards to distribute, since I meet people all the time who are interested in learning English. I hinted at it a bit more over the months, but it didn’t get through to her until October, about eight months after they took my information, that I still didn’t have a card and it was pretty much impossible for me to recruit anyone without one. I reiterated during a meeting that I could better find students if I had a card, and Yoshiko acted surprised that I didn’t have one, as if she were hearing this for the first time. I got my cards the next day, and used them for business purposes twice before I was laid off in December. I burnt all the cards on Christmas. If you, for instance, have your own business where you need to gather clients and work with customers, then you need a card. I needed cards, but no one even bothered to give them to me. So that’s how important they think a foreigner with a business card is.

Japanese students are perfectly disciplined little machines

Hahahahahahaha. This stereotype must come from the fact that they take tests very seriously, and are indoctrinated to behave for ceremonies and rites of passage. All the times in between, however, anything goes. It’s all about appearances. They “do their best” when it matters, and it usually only matters when they’re taking an entrance exam, which they prepare for in cram school rather than regular school. When Yoshiko traveled to Washington DC and observed American public schools, she commented to me on two things: (1) some girls were pregnant and (2) the kids were really well behaved. This surprised me, because my first reaction when she said that she observed DC public schools was, “That sounds terrifying.”

For women, it’s rude to put on your makeup in public

Unless you’ve been reading up on what you should know before going to Japan, you probably haven’t heard this one. The thing is, I’ll buy that it’s rude, sure. But I’ve seen more Japanese women putting on their makeup in public than I’ve seen any women do in any other country by far. In America, we don’t have any rules that it’s rude to put on your makeup in public. I have the idea that you shouldn’t do it anyway because it destroys the “illusion”, plus it seems kind of self-absorbed. I read things about how you shouldn’t put on your makeup in public in Japan, but then when I came here I saw women doing it all the freaking time. Why did someone want to make it such a point to foreign women that it’s considered rude to do this when it’s fairly commonplace for Japanese women? Did they want to make sure foreigners understood that despite what they may see, this activity is rude, and all these Japanese women are horribly crass? I think this taboo is missing a part, which is that it’s generally considered rude for a woman NOT to wear makeup. Jewelry is mostly off-limits in a professional setting, but a woman should come to work in full face. So these busy women who are rudely putting on their makeup in front of others are perhaps just trying to avoid the rudeness of not wearing makeup in front of their clients. And their clients matter way more than the people on the train. So it’s kind of a matter of which is ruder, putting on makeup in public, or not putting on makeup at all. Luckily, that’s a rule foreigners are often exempt from. I’m not sure why. When I first heard of this from one of my Japanese friends, I told her, embarrassed, that I often went out without wearing makeup. She responded, “But you are foreigner.”

All this misinformation at least shows that there’s been an ongoing dialogue. There are a couple of reasons I think people in the West are so fascinated by Japan. One is that it’s basically the wealthy, first world country in Asia, yet it’s so different from all the other world powers. The other is that nobody can quite get it. We can visit, observe, ask questions and postulate, but in many ways it’s such a closed culture that we’re bound to get some things wrong. Even bilingual Japanese people can’t necessarily explain it, because it’s endlessly difficult to analyze your own culture to outsiders. Kind of like how I can’t explain the difference between “You fucked up” and “You have fucked up”. The spies like me can either be too much of an outsider or too much of an insider to provide proper insight. There will always be interest in people’s theories on Japan because nobody can quite get it right. I do what I can, but I’m definitely not an ultimate authority. So, fellow spies, what misconceptions would you add to this list?


Blogger GLE said...

My experiences with your misconceptions.

1) I was SHOCKED when I found out little to no one spoke english. It was funny because when I had plane problems and missed my flight the guy who helped me I thought I had the one person who didn't speak english but it turns out he probably spoke the best english of all the japanese people I met.

2) Don't have much thoughts on this one

3) I was SOOOOOO excited about my business cards! I thought they would be like exotic pieces of gold. Especially because no one would really figure out why there was a dog on it or what I did. Remember when I went up to that Japanese couple in the park with the English Cocker Spaniel and gave them my card? I was soooo excited about giving out my card.

4) Didn't meet too many kids

5) I think Japanese women wear more make-up than american women.

3:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay, I don't know if Colin writes or not, but I seriously think there's a market for a travel guide for Gaijin going to Japan, co-authored by you (for women) and Colin (for men). I'm sure there are big cultural differences for what the two sexes encounter. If he doesn't write, maybe you could do it on CD with you narrating and Colin providing instrumental backup. Either way, your most recent entries have knocked the socks of anything one could buy at the bookstore in the way of a travel guide. I can see "The Unvarnished (unlaquered?) Gaijin Guide to Japanese Cultural Survival", or (fill in the blank).
You're a short timer now--don't forget you can stay at our place when you get back!
Love, Dad

4:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure even I (a 57 year veteran of American culture) understand the difference between "You fucked up" and "You have fucked up".
Dad again.

4:34 AM  
Blogger Amanda said...

Holy crap, Dad's 57? and Mom, too? Wow, seems strange... of course I have told people on two different occasions that I was 27 when I am actually 26. Sad that I don't even know my own age. I absolutely love your blog... you really should put it in chronological order and send it to publishers because it is that good. My friend Paul is in England getting ready to drive across Mongolia! Oh, and I'm going to the Bahamas with Kristi (probably)... whatever call me! Oh, btw, I am super busy, haven't even had a chance to call Dad yet. I am in 2 classes and work full time so I have very little spare time, during which I volunteer at the animal shelter, help Mom with tearing up my flood-damaged house (which had a secret stairway behind my closet and earthworms in the walls!), or try and find time to sleep, so I have been seriously busy but SOOOO looking forward to seeing you soon!
Love you!

2:18 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

A couple points:

In regards to cell phones being the most advanced in Japan - I'd say Finland is actually at the top with Nokia. iPhone is a new contendor, so we'll see where that goes.

Some people sell their cars and buy new ones after 3 years when they are up for their first shaken, or 5 years after their second shaken when the cost starts to go up. Sometimes it makes more economical sense to trade in your car for a new model at a heavily discounted price. The thing is, you're practically locked into the original company you went with if you want to be the most economical. The only thing we have in the States (even in California, which surprises me) is a smog check every couple of years, which costs a mere $15 USD.

Computers aren't as popular in Japan because of cell phones. If it's games you want to play, then there are always game systems (Nintendo, Sony). TV is watched a HD wide-screen flat pannel TV. DVDs on Blu-Ray players. In the States, more people lean towards "entertainment center PCs", where it's an all-in-one, so that investing in and maintaining it is pretty common place.

Your business card situation - That's not the norm from my point-of-view.

The make-up thing - It's the older generation that feels it's rude, or embarassing for the person doing it. Younger women seem to do it regardless. But I have a few housewife-students who tell me how awful it is that they see these young women putting on their makeup in a public restroom. This is a generation gap rather than a misconception.

One major misconception is that Westerners "can't get" Japan. Japan is so blindingly simple to comprehend if you just step out of the way you've been trained to think. Like the language itself, once you become familiar with it you can anticipate new scenarios before learning about them. Westerners love to see Japan as some sort of mystery, and Japanese love to play up their own country as mysterious and unique. You can find parallels of nearly every aspect of Japan in at least one other location in the world. In the end, we're all still humans who operate on top of very basic human-animal instincts. More interesting than differences in culture are the reasons behind those differences. When you understand the reasons, you understand the society.

10:07 AM  
Blogger archipelagic said...


Thanks for reading. I actually get the thing about cell phones having developed to fill the common computer niche, but computers fill so many functions besides e-mail and accessing a few websites. It seems like the technology in which they're really ahead generally falls into luxury items. I don't use my computer for games, but I do use it for research and USED TO use it to create handouts and teaching materials a lot. You can defend the situation or their reasoning, but there's no denying that for many Westerners, the fact that the Japanese aren't down with computers is completely surprising.

I agree with you that the Japanese are wrapped up in the mysteriousness of their culture and language, even when there are perfectly good explanations. But I wouldn't call anything about deciding levels of politeness and the systems of giving/receiving/refusing then accepting favors from others blindingly simple. There are hundreds of scholarly articles written by natives and foreigners about the use of polite and casual speech, especially in relation to gender and social standing, and the only consensus is that it's complicated and there is no definite standard on what's acceptable. I added in that note at the end, because everybody writes about Japan, and so many people swear by their theories, but another person experiences something completely different. Of course the Japanese experience couldn't be monolithic, but it seems like there are constant conflicting views, with everyone vehemently arguing for their side. Lots of times, someone is missing an important detail, but that would only change the discourse, not the ultimate conclusion. Your theories and mine are just part of the blogging discourse, working towards ideas and explanations, but we don't necessarily get it right, and our experiences won't speak to everyone else's.

12:58 PM  
Blogger Amanda said...

I wanted to add that I found Japan EXTREMELY complicated. I enjoyed myself, but I would never know the exact rules of conduct, politeness and everything if I wasn't coached the whole time. I am an intelligent person and I have been different places in the world and Japan is anything but "blindingly simple." Everyone has the right to their own opinion, but it is unnecessary to try to make someone feel that theirs is wrong. That's all. :)

3:31 PM  

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