Sunday, February 16, 2014

Japan and America: Unsurprisingly, Not the Same Country

So, there are a lot of things that are different between America and Japan. Let’s talk about those things. Mostly because it’s interesting to get to know another culture; what seems bizarre to us is commonplace for another country in the world, and wouldn’t be thought of twice. I think one of my favorite parts about being in Japan is not only learning about the differences, but explaining the differences to my Japanese friends because they always seem to get a real kick out of it.

Besides the obvious differences, like how in Japan one drives on the left side of the road (thaaaaaat was fun to get used to), or the work culture (jobs are not often 9 to 5 – most teachers arrive at school here before 8 am, leave around 7 or 8 pm, and work Saturdays and/or also Sundays because they are also in charge of clubs, which the students meet for religiously. This is not limited to just schools; often businessmen work ridiculously long hours, leaving their wives and children at home as they win the bread, which has led to a disturbing trend in men in their 40’s and over. Known as “death by overwork”, men in generally good health suddenly have a heart attack and die due to stress and working too many hours. This happens to younger folk as well – only in those cases, the overwork often leads to suicide. If anyone wants to hear more about the work culture in Japan, I’d be glad to do a blog post on it – there’s way too much to say just between these parentheses).

Some differences are little. For example, when it snows, people in Japan use umbrellas. I remember seeing that for the first time in the winter in Nagoya; as I hurried down the hill from the station on the way to school and snowflakes began drifting down lazily from the sky, girls around me suddenly opened up their umbrellas and kept on walking. “It’s snow,” I muttered. “Not rain. It’s just a little snow!” At the time, I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of people using umbrellas to keep themselves dry from snow; I often just wear a hat or a hood to keep myself warm.

Some students in their uniforms walking home in the snow.

But in Japan, women also use parasols for the sun (often in Japan, being paler is considered attractive – whereas in America, tan is “in”), so maybe it wasn’t so strange after all. Yesterday, as I was about to leave my apartment to walk to school, I saw that it was snowing. 25 minutes walking in the snow isn’t so bad, but by the time I get there no doubt I’d be pretty damp…I ended up grabbing an umbrella on my way out. I’ve learned to accept it.

"I'm so pretty, oh so pretty..."

Another thing is the grocery stores. First of all, you will find no such giant grocery cart that we have in America (which no doubt subconsciously encourages more purchasing). They have much smaller carts in Japan - carts that are just large enough to hold a grocery basket. Refrigerators in Japan tend to be smaller than American fridges, and women usually go shopping more than once a week (or so was the case at my host families’ houses). You take a basket, put it in the cart, do your shopping. When it’s time to check out, you remove the basket with all the things you want to purchase in it and put it on the counter – there’s no conveyor belt, no hassle of hurrying to get everything on the counter, it’s all there in the basket.

Putting the food directly into the cart would become a hassle and time-eater later. This is simpler.

What happens next is probably weird to an American, though. The cashier rings up your items and proceeds to put them in another basket – and in a very neat, precise way – i.e., fruits on the top, boxed things on the bottom, organized to look good. Once you pay, you take the basket of things you just purchased and move to another counter set up on the other side of the register, near the exits.

You can kinda see what's going on here: The man's groceries have been moved from the now-empty basket from the left side of the cashier, to the right, where she's giving him a plastic bag to bag his own groceries. That's right - there are no "bag boys" in Japan.

This is where you take your reusable grocery bag (or the plastic bags you can buy for 5 yen, or 5 cents) and proceed to take all of the neatly ordered things and re-order them into your bag/s. So if the frozen foods you got are on the bottom of the basket, you’ll now need them at the bottom of your bag – so you have to rearrange the stuff in your basket to get them properly into your bag. That part can be kind of a nuisance, but as I often don’t purchase much, this usually isn’t an issue – it’s just ironic that with all of the care that a grocery store worker takes to make things nice and neat and pretty, you have to undo it all to actually, you know, take your food home with you.

This guy knows what's up as he packs his own groceries to take home.

And while we’re on the topic of food, let’s talk about packaging. How often does it happen that you’re trying to open a bag of cereal, or oatmeal, or a bag of chips, or anything with plastic, and before long you’re wrestling with the packaging trying to open your freaking Oreos, when the bag pops and suddenly there’s food everywhere and you want to scream in anger and weep simultaneously?

It has happened to all of us. But probably not as often to the Japanese.

That little black arrow on the left telling you where the opening is is printed on most all packages in Japan.

In Japan, the packaging is ridiculously convenient. This may seem like a weird thing to notice – but it’s actually not. For example, if there’s a plastic bag of little chocolates, of chips, of what-have-you, there will always be a notch to tear into and open up. If it’s a container of cookies, it will open wide in such a way that it can be shared with others (not good for those who don’t want to share, but in Japan you literally share everything when it comes to food). I buy these boxes of individual “cafĂ© au lait” packets for my coffee every morning. The box can be opened from the top as one normally would, or you can tear along a perforated edge so that it stands on top of your counter and you can easily grab one from the front and be on your way.

And nearly everything is individually wrapped. Japan is incredibly eco-friendly (I separate my garbage into six different categories; glass, PET bottles [a kind of hard plastic], plastic [like plastic bags], paper, burnables [e.g. food leftovers, like banana peels], and non-burnables [batteries, bolts, etc]. Now this may sound annoying as hell – and that's because it is – but it’s very eco-friendly), but packaging ultimately becomes their downfall. If you grab a box of chocolates, it is not uncommon to open it up and find that each chocolate is individually wrapped. This goes back to the food-sharing culture in Japan; this way, people can grab one and not feel like they’re grabbing chocolate out of a cesspool of germs, because all the chocolates are covered in protective plastic wrapping.

And since we’re still talking about food, let me just say that there are no leftovers in Japan. When you go to a restaurant, you eat what you can and if you can’t finish it, you leave it. There are no doggie-bags, no extras to take home. I have tried not to let this sadden me over the years, and learned to plan around it.

And if you go out to drink with friends, you can expect not to drive or ride a bicycle back home. Japan has a no-tolerance policy on booze; getting caught breaking this policy (particularly if you choose to drink and drive) will not only be incredibly shameful for you, but it is very likely that you will lose your job (especially if you’re a teacher).

There are real good transportations services in Japan like subways, trains, and taxis (the latter being a bit expensive), but if you drive to a bar and end up drinking, there’s another service we don’t have in Japan, called Daiko. You call a Daiko service, and two men in a taxi come and pick you up. You get in the taxi, and one guy gets out. He takes your keys, gets in your car, and follows your taxi back home with you. It’s a reasonably priced service (often not more than a taxi) and pretty smart, really.

As for structures that America doesn’t have, surely the “love hotel” culture is on the list. Want to rent a hotel room in the city for a few hours? You can do that in Japan. Born from lack of privacy in Japanese culture, they are cheap places where couples can...hang out. I don’t know much about love hotels, so I did a little research for you guys:

Very informative says, "Love hotels in Japan are quiet cheap when you consider that the rooms are usually much bigger than a normal hotel room, often have large-screen TVs that can also be used for karaoke or video game units such as Play Station or Nintendo, have larger baths and showers, and - of course - have larger beds." It seems rooms oftentimes have themes, and are often similarly priced to much smaller, less decorated hotel rooms. i.e., they're reasonably priced.
I don't recommend sitting on the couch.

But you probably get the drift. We have motels for that in America; love hotels are cleaner and classier.

Japan also has onsen, which I’ve been dying to talk about. Onsen are public baths. You change out of your clothes in the locker room and walk naked as the day you were born into a bathing area. Before you get into the large, publicly used baths, though, you go to some shower stalls (which are not so much stalls as they are little chairs in front of a mirror and a counter of soap, shampoo, and conditioner, each counter/mirror area parted by a divider, so that you can see down the rows of stalls without much effort at all) and shower off. Rinse, wash, basically what you normally do in a shower. There are bowls that you can fill with water and pour over yourself, or you can use a removable shower spout.

Looks like this.

Once you’re all clean, you can go to the public bath and sit in some real hot water with others, strangers and friends alike. It’s like a really big hot tub, but without the bubbles, and you’re all naked. That’s right – girls call up their friends and say, “hey, wanna get naked and sit in a bath together?”…but probably they don’t phrase it that way. Groups of guys will go together as well (the word “gay” never even uttered), it’s definitely not exclusively limited to girls, and there are young (as young as just a year old) and old (UUUUP there, 80’s and over, so long as they are independently mobile) alike.

Hey, here's a helpful infographic to explain behavior in Japanese public baths! 

This is a culture that has been going on for thousands of years in Japan (this is not an exaggeration) – a practice that Americans might cringe over, but Japanese would think nothing of. The men baths and women baths are separated, of course – although it seems like there are co-ed baths (though I’m not sure why any woman would want to go into one, seems like an invitation for sexual harassment to me, but then I’ve never been to one – and probably never will). I am, however, a HUGE fan of onsen. I usually take trips alone, although I have gone with Japanese friends and host mothers in the past. I have yet to go with another foreigner, but I think maybe that’d be just too much for me.

I have to say though, going into an onsen is liberating, refreshing, and incredibly enjoyable. You shower beforehand so you know the bath water is clean (plus, Japanese people have a tendency to prize cleanliness – taking “cleanliness is holiness” to a whol new level) and there are outside public baths so that you can enjoy hot water on a cold winter day while it’s snowing. It’s one of my favorite cultural aspects of Japan.

Once you’re done sitting in water (some onsen even have TVs you can watch), you get out, rinse yourself off, and go back to the locker room to dry and brush your hair, get dressed, and apply lotion. A lot of people (myself included) will just put on pajamas and drive home – that was their shower for the day, and now it’s time for bed while you’re still all warm and red from the bath. It’s a great way to warm up in the winter, and no matter who you ask, all Japanese people will swear that taking hot baths keeps you from catching colds, because you warm your body thoroughly – and a reason why most Japanese people take baths nightly (that and because baths are awesome).

There are a million more things that are different from Japan and America, and although this is only a little window, I’m sure I’ll come back with more to report back. The difficult thing is that I’ve adjusted to all of the differences by now so I often don’t think twice about them – but every once in a while, I’ll be reminded of how things are different between countries (for example, there was just an election for Tokyo mayor, and one of the men running was someone who has been reported of saying that women aren’t fit for office because they menstruate. He ended up winning – and while idiots winning office in America is certainly not unheard of, I think most Americans [and damn, hopefully all women] would be outraged, insulted, and call that guy out for being a medieval dumbass. Gender equality is not so prevalent in Japan as it is in America [although there were several protests in Tokyo, mostly women-driven, in the streets against his campaign], and sometimes it feels like we’re still living in the 1950’s here. Wi-fi is impossible to find in public, is another example that comes to mind).

But I have written enough for today. Leave a comment if there’s a topic you want me to elaborate on more, if you wanna hear more about the differences in Japan and the cultural mindsets that drive them, or just to say hey. Thanks for reading!

Edit: Just thought of another one. A lot of people leave their cars on as they run into the convenience store for a few things. Can't do that in America without the fear of your car being stolen. Can do that in Japan (although I don't, 'cause I still don't think it's a good idea). 
Come to Japan; bathe your body and your soul alike.

1 comment:

  1. Welcome back! I so love your blogs! Momma love you!