You are going to stay in the land of the rising sun for more than a year. The land of the samurai, geisha, kimono, karate, karaoke, and whatnot! You arrived in the Summer and it is bloody hot. Look! Vending machines everywhere! You run to the vending machine and toss ¥130 in the vending machine and you for the delicious cold tea. You take your bottle out of the machine and walk back. You open the bottle and you drink from it. The Japanese started eye balling you. You noticed it, but you are too thirsty. You wink at them: “Daijoubu, baka gaijin desu” (it is oke, I am an idiot foreigner).
You read the title of this blog post, you probably are thinking this has something to do with things to avoid in Japan so the Japanese do not look down on you. You are probably thinking this is one of those guidelines where small cultural differences are pointed out that you probably did not think of before coming to Japan. One of them is, for instance, putting your chopsticks vertical in your rice bowl. Chopsticks put vertically in a bowl is only done at a funeral and not in a restaurant. You know, there are hundreds of websites explaining these kinds of things. This blog post, however, will do the OPPOSITE. Things you could get away with as a BAKA GAIJIN (stupid foreigner).
“Wow chotto a minute, Zack-san. Nani the fuck are you doing? Shouldn’t you tell your readers how to adapt to their culture?” Just bear with me for a moment. This blog post is NOT to aggravate the Japanese or to kick them on their leg. I am not saying that at all. I am going to explain how one can stay sane in Japan with the zillion rules they are having.
Japan is a conservative country where the individual matters less than the group. It is a collective society where everyone is a small cog in a bigger machine. In order to keep the machine running, the Japanese society has put many written and unwritten rules (norms) on their people. These rules and norms are taught to children and abided till the grave. Most of the rules correspond to what we know in the west as the 10 commandments. These commandments are universal, such as, thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not lie, and etc. These rules apply in every country and it makes sense.
When you go deeper into a culture, you will find different types of norms that you are not used to. Here is when things become interesting. These norms are so common to the locals when an international person joins the community and unaware of the norms, the local people tend to forget that their norms are not common abroad. But as they have been living in their ‘box’ for so long, it feels like a natural thing. In the West, making noise when eating (munching) is considered disgusting and annoying, wherein other cultures they do not know about the concept and it is a common thing to them.
Adapting yourself to these weird norms is a plus and appreciated. I recommend people to try to adjust as much as possible to the local culture. If slurping noodles show your appreciation for the food to the one who cooked it, then just make the slurping noises, because the opposite means you do not like the food and it is considered an insult. On a superficial level, adapting to the norms that are visible is fine. Kind of a monkey see, monkey do type of adjustment.
But as the Japanese are all small cogs in a bigger machine, adjusting yourself to become a cog in their machine is near impossible. You are also a cog within your own society, but a cog with different teeth that moves differently from the Japanese society. The Japanese society is very tough and extremely demanding of an individual for the sake of the greater good.
You will ALWAYS hear the phrase ‘Ganbatte kudasai’. Loosely translated, it means to do your best. But the cultural implications are far severe than the weak English translation. It means:
“…to endure, to not give up, to be patient and long suffering, to continue a difficult or stressful task as long it may be necessary to succeed, to try one’s very best to accomplish something. It means simply to put up quietly and patiently with an uncomfortable or unpleasant situation (including an obnoxious co-worker, a mean boss, or a difficult customer) without complaining or becoming openly angry (so as not to cause embarrassment, create social disharmony, or disturb others’ feelings).” (Meek 1999).
The society pushes the Japanese beyond their limitations and beyond their capabilities. As an international in Japan, you are expected to work as hard as they do. This means working from 7 AM till 11 PM. Murimuri, dekinai (impossible, I cannot). As a Dutchman, I will tell you this. I will leave the office at 6 PM, I turn off my work phone, I will not check my email until the next morning. In the Netherlands we say: ‘If there is work today, there is work tomorrow’. Work is endless and it will never finish. We prefer to spend time with our friends and family, and we make a CLEAR border between our private life and work life.
Daijoubu Baka Gaijin Desu
That said, I will give you some examples of my baka gaijin moments. One of the things the Japanese have is patience. I consider myself quite a patient person, but the Japanese are masters of having patience. A red traffic light at 23:30, I am on foot, there are no cars, no bikes, no human being near, heck not even animals are at the intersection. I will jaywalk. I am not going to wait on nothing. Here in the south of Japan the traffic lights do not have a sensor (or anywhere else). The traffic lights are hard coded and they as they programmed to do. Japanese on the other hand, they will wait patiently until the red light turns green as it is taboo to cross on a red light. I refuse to waste my time on nothing, I will shamelessly cross the street.
I recently rented a car with my friends. Sometimes I would make a mistake in a turn as the GPS confused me. I would go into another street and turn there (when there are no cars). My friends told me to keep driving and turn later, nope I am a baka gaijin, daijoubu desu. It was not against the rules, there were no cars, I turn the car.
Drinking and eating while walking is a no-no in Japan….. Seriously?! Listen, I am 1.85m and 88kg. When I am hungry and in a hurry, I do not give two flying Fssss about this rule. I will grab something and eat while underway. While I am writing this it is mid-summer, 32 degrees outside with a humidity of 90%. I will look for a vending machine and buy myself a cool drink and drink it all while walking. It is ‘taboo’ but heck, I will play my gaijin card for this one. It is toooooo darn hot in Japan!
Cannot say ‘no’ to things, I have to phrase it as ‘ano’, ‘chotto’, ‘eto ne’ ‘hmmm’. Nope, if I do not want X, I will give a direct and a clear no. Of course, my tone is not harsh in anyway, but I HATE the read-in-between-the-lines answers. The same goes for the opposite, if do want to do X, I well let you know with a straight answer yes!
There are so many rules in Japan, it makes living in such a society very difficult. ‘The nail that sticks out gets hammered down’ is a real proverb being used in Japan. Meaning, you need to stay conform to the society. The one thing that I cannot stand is the job hunting dress code. All the young people looking for a job are all in black suits with black shoes and a black suitcase. The ladies need to have their hair in a ponytail, not dyed, and more nonsense like that. You can read more about these dumb job hunting rules here.
The society looks down on those who are sticking out and the people are afraid of being excommunicated. Whenever you praise a Japanese person for something they are good at, let’s say a Japanese person who is very good at speaking English, you tell the person, ‘wow your English is very good!’ The Japanese person will not say ‘thank you (for the compliment)’ but rather ‘no, no, no I am bad at speaking English.’ Even though the person is clearly good at it, the Japanese person cannot accept the compliment as this shows that the person is boasting himself and thus sticking out. And sticking out means getting hammered down.
Rules but no consequences?
As the Japanese are afraid of breaking the rules, they will not dare to question them either. それがルールです (those are the rules). When asking why these rules are there and what are their purpose the answer will be: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
But during my stay in Japan, I have learned that there are rules and there are rules. Clear rules that have big consequences are there to protect people. Drinking and driving don’t go hand in hand, therefore, there is a rule that makes this forbidden. These rules I can of course support. You break this rule, you deserve to lose your driver’s license. Clear rule and clear consequences that are upheld by the arms of the law.
But there are also rules that are there just to keep people in line but they have no consequences…. The previous rule I mentioned is more on a national level, but when you go to an organizational level some rules are there but no one really upholds them. One of my professors from overseas showed me that he is not allowed to park his car in front of the university. But he does it anyway for years and the school does nothing. The rule is there, but no consequences.
Another weird thing is that at my school when we do our proctoring (keeping an eye on the undergraduates when they have their exams) we need to “prevent them from cheating” and not catching them with cheating. Before the exam even starts we have to put up a big screen that states that if they are caught cheating there will be SEVERE consequences for them such as losing their tuition reduction and even worse getting expelled. But when we do find them cheating and we would like to remove them from the exam room, the academic office will start attacking the proctors as we all need to have witnessed the cheating and take full responsibility that indeed this person cheated.
The university is terrified of expelling students for cheating as this probably will ruin their reputation or whatever. As there are no clear consequences for the students they keep cheating. Rules, but no consequences….
The Japanese do not expect the foreigners to fully understand everything in Japan and they will play their Nihonjinron card (vague way of describing the things that make the Japanese Japanese) as well. It is a win-win situation. Of course, I try to behave myself in their society and adapt myself as much as possible. But the Japanese society is very strict on the individual and for those who did not grow up in Japan, it is extremely hard to stay sane if you really want to adhere to every single rule. From time to time it is okay to play your Gaijin card. And when you really do not want to be bothered, you could play your ultimate gaijin card, just say:
Nihongo o tabemasen (日本語をたべません, I do not eat Japanese language)
As always thank you for reading my blogs. I appreciate your kind words and your ideas!
Meek, C.M. (1999). Ganbatte: Understanding the Japanese Employee.