Fitting into Japanese Society

I’m done traveling throughout Southeast Asia and I’m glad I did it as ‘stepping out’ has allowed me to see Japan as more of an outsider once again. I’m not really one for museums but I do make sure to read up a little about a country’s history, demographics, etc. during my visit and this often led me to find interesting connections between those countries and Japan or even the U.S.


Taipei’s National Palace Museum.


The changing of the guards at Taipei’s Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.

Singapore brought me the closest to the equator that I’ve ever been and the heat led me straight to its Hawker food sites where I discovered a cuisine as diverse as its population. The highlight there was probably meeting with Cheryl’s (a friend from Amherst) father over dinner. In Vietnam I travelled through two cities, Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh in the south, and spent a couple of days with Quoc, a friend I made through my study abroad program. We motorbiked nearly everywhere and I was able to take more chances here with food in being with a local. Hong Kong was probably the most similar city to NYC for me but that wasn’t necessarily comforting.

Singapore's national symbol is the Merlion.

The Merlion is Singapore’s national symbol.

Singapore's Chinatown had some pretty cool architecture.

Singapore’s Chinatown had some pretty cool architecture.

My hostel was located in Singapore's little India.

My hostel was located in Singapore’s little India. On the side you’ll see a banner about Lee Kuan Yew, the father of Singapore. He once said that allowing Japan to re-arm would be like “giving chocolate liqueur to an alcoholic”.


I also went to a night safari in Singapore, where I got to see a fire show.


Ho Chi Minh also had some pretty interesting architecture.


Hoan Kiem Lake is pretty central in Hanoi. In the background building you can see part of the Vietnamese flag and I saw lots of that sort of nationalism during my stay as it was nearing the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon.


Hong Kong’s skyline was definitely one of if not the best I’ve ever seen.

This week I’ll be writing a bit about Japan’s social norms, and just as there are things that I admire, there are those with room for improvement. Then again, this applies to American or any other country’s society, but just getting away from it for a while can catalyze this awareness. Defining yourself or trying to define others (most often subconsciously) requires a comparison to an Other. For example, Japanese characterize themselves with a group mentality that’s only in contrast to what they see as an American individualism. In the same way, I’ll just be writing about things I’ve noticed are particular to the Japanese compared to all the other people and cultures I’ve encountered.

Two words that you hear when you ask a Japanese person about their society are semai and kyuukutsu, narrow and constrained. In contrast, when asked about what sort of image they have of the United States, they describe it as hiroi, open and expansive. Their descriptions mostly apply metaphorically but you’ll find that they can also be used for their physical spaces. Compartmentalized homes and businesses help makes things more efficient and it’s said that Japanese children start walking at an earlier age because tighter homes means more chances to prop themselves up with their surrounding furniture.

This relates a bit to what I wrote about in my last post, but people also feel constrained and sometimes suffocated by social standards. In terms of employment, you don’t have much of an opportunity to switch jobs throughout life and gender inequality in the workplace surpasses that in the states.

Streets can also be really narrow but things will run extremely smoothly. Everyone knows where they’re going and with what purpose. You have your role and it seems odd when you don’t conform to it or step out of bounds. Rarely will you hear a car horn and you will be stared at with intense judgement if you have a conversation on the train. In some ways, this is all about saving face and not just your own but also that of anyone who is associated with you.

If complimented or offered something, you must deny or decline as many times as possible before obliging after being insisted. This has to be timed perfectly though and doing it too early will leave a bad impression. As a Japanese language learner the most common thing you’ll hear is:  Nihongo ga jouzu desu ne, “Your Japanese is so good, right?” You’ll be told this even if the only thing you’ve said is a simple konnichiwa and you’ve got to get used to it and just shyly say iie iie, “No, no”.

Maintaining an image is also such an intricate part of the language itself. There’s the keigo system that generally has three levels of speech with different conjugations depending on who you’re speaking to. You also have to change the tone of your voice in certain scenarios. For example, whenever I heard my host mother answer the phone I had to do double takes just to make sure it was really her. You’re supposed to make your voice sound as “pleasant” as possible at this time, and in Japan pleasant will mean really high pitched. Once you know that the person on the other line is just a friend or family member, you revert to your normal voice.

If you go to a department store you’ll be greeted and invited to patron a store in energetic and animated voices. By far, Japan has the best customer service out of any country I’ve encountered. Price tags generally include the tax and transparency is important while you watch as cooks prepare your meals at restaurants. This is related to an efficiency and politeness that I’ve learned to associate with Japan. At the end of a movie, everyone will remain seated through the credits and until the lights are turned on.

Japanese people also see themselves as shy. This makes it so that they keep themselves from speaking out and so in a class the teacher will usually do most of the talking. They do this because they don’t want to be wrong or risk bringing up an idea that’s different from those of others, and this goes along with the whole group mentality. Women seem to carry more of this image’s burden and in public settings will cover their mouths with a hand while speaking or laughing.

You also don’t want to embarrass others and so say things in roundabout ways. For example, when you visit someone’s home in Kyoto and the host is ready for you to leave, they’ll offer you a specific treat so that you get the hint. You turn it down and kindly leave. Moreover, non-verbal communication is vital and beyond the bowing that Japan is known for, you should kuuki yomeru, be able to read the air. There’s even a sort of taunt for people who can’t do this called KY, short for kuuki yomenai. It’s a bad thing to be out of the loop here and the worst thing you can be called is a suupa (Super) KY.

The salarymen, they're everywhere!

The salarymen, they’re everywhere!

There are a couple of what I guess you can call and are recognized as characters in Japanese society. There are the salarymen suited up boarding a morning’s crowded trains. They will look very majime, or serious, except for when you see one stumbling to make the last train home on a weekend night. There are otakus of all types but particularly avid manga comic book readers who spend their days holed up in their rooms. There’s the obaachan (grandmother or nice elderly woman) from Osaka who will offer you sweets if you happen to sit next to her. There are also people who live out of the magic behind the konbini, which translates to convenience store but is so much more. They’re literally everywhere and sell all you need to get by on a day to day basis. Here’s a series of some different konbini companies I encountered on the lookout one day (FamilyMart is probably my favorite):






The Japan I’ve lived in has been consistently safe, clean, and organized. The yen has been the crispest currency I’ve ever handled. In Japan, people will go out of their way to return lost items and the only sort of threat you’re warned about are of chikans, or train gropers. Those are rarer nowadays but you’ll see posters encouraging people to speak up for others. On the subway you’ll see five year olds scurrying around commuting on their own. It’s normal to set your bags down claiming a table at a coffee shop and leaving it unattended to make your order. You abide patiently by the cross light, even if there is no car in sight. Japan’s safe but you should still keep your wits about you there, and be prepared to experience earthquakes.

Masked up on the way to school. Unfortunately not so great when you wear glasses.

Masked up on the way to school. Unfortunately not so great when you wear glasses.

In Japan, I held a residency card and had to subscribe to its national health program. When it comes to even the common cold, you have to wear a mask to avoid contaminating others and doctors are generally known for over-medicating. Hospitals are also efficient and I’ve never heard any complaints concerning wait times. I only had to go once and that was for migraines, but even then, I was in and out in no time.

In broader terms, some final social norms include removing your shoes at the genkan before entering a house, abiding by various chopstick etiquettes, and bringing others back an omiyage (souvenir) with you from wherever you visit. I found the last one sort of difficult because it sort of became distracting during trips to worry about finding a right gift. Being active in local politics and community organizations is also widely encouraged.

The social problem that’s most talked about is shoushikourouka, a declining birth rate coupled with an aging population. Older Japanese people are very active and I’ve been left in the dust many times by them as I struggled up a hike. There are several reasons why people aren’t choosing to have children. For one, raising a child is expensive but recently there’s also been little interest among Japanese youth to get married or even have relationships. In international marriages we see Japanese women marrying western men and Japanese men marrying southeast Asian women.

One of the things my friends and I joked about is how hug-deprived we were. Hugging is not a thing here and witnessing one that’s not between a small child and their mother is a really awkward experience for both participants and observers. It’s been months since I’ve been hugged! The last time someone tried to come in for a hug, I actually remember instinctively tensing up and backing away. I’ve formed several habits (some I’m prouder of than others) that I can’t really see myself parting with easily when I go.

There are so many things specific to Japan and I know that this post just won’t do it any justice. Its uniqueness has in the end made it all the harder to say goodbye to it. Some things I wrote about may have been critical but I take that as a sign that I’ve been living here for an extended time. The same of course applies to my relationship with the U.S., where I’ll return to after all of this.

Till next time for my final post and an update on all of my travels!

Also here’s a video some of us at my program made and showed at the farewell ceremony:

One comment

  • The truth is this. In a Japanese society (or any asian society for that matter). You will never truly belong. Case with Japan, you may become legally Japanese and carry a Japanese passport, you may immerse into their culture and become fluent in the language. But there is one thing you will never be able to change. And that is your skin color. If your skin color doesn’t match theirs, you will never be accepted socially. You will always be an outsider to them. Can you become Japanese? Legally yes. Socially no.

    As a foreigner, people may be polite to you. They welcome you as a guest but they don’t want you as a next door neighbor. Many times people will invite you out to dinner one evening and after that they’ll never speak to you again. People who you meet don’t want you being part of their lives. They will keep you at arm’s length. You will find that people you know will spend very very little time with you. But with each other, they’ll be spending lots of time with one another on a regular basis. You will find yourself singled out. If you lived in Japan for a specific amount of time, people in your neighborhood who were friendly towards you will eventually start ignoring you completely as well as giving you indirect cues for you to leave their country. They’ll ask when you are leaving and tell you things like “the economy is getting bad for foreigners and we are sad to see many leave” and things like that.

    Social segregation is what it is. If you are living in Japan as a foreigner, no matter how long you live in China the social segregation will always be there. You can’t break free from it. You will be spending the majority of your time all by yourself.

    This doesn’t go just for Japan. This is everywhere in Asia.

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