By: Rachel Beede
Since I started teaching English in Japan two years ago after completing the International TEL Academy online TEFL course, I’ve noticed quite a few cultural differences. It seems that every month, I observe something new. In spite of the fact that I’ve been a fanatic of Japan since I was 12, there were still so many unexpected things, so I’ve decided to list them. There are many contradictions that I have found within their culture that have surprised me. For those of you looking to visit, study, or, dare I say, live and teach in Japan, here are some things you should know.
This is a land of contradictions.
Sense of politeness:
Although extremely polite, it may surprise foreigners, especially women, when a door slams in their face for the first time. In fact, many Japanese people don’t hold the door open for others, and they are quite shocked when you hold the door for them!
It is also common for people to cross the road slowly while a car is trying to turn. In the U.S., we typically wait for the car to pass before crossing the road. In Japan, the pedestrian always goes first, even if it means holding up traffic while running across the street once the crossing light has turned red.
Also, although they are a humble people, using honorary terms and extremely humbling language and gestures, they also are very proud of Japan and of being Japanese. For this reason, they appreciate it when foreign people delve into their culture. Although they still believe that foreigners can’t fully understand their traditions, as they don’t have that past history, they still respect foreigners who are interested in and actually study their culture. I have been studying the tea ceremony and have learned how to wear a kimono. I am amazed at how many people openly comment about my kimono even as I’m just walking down the street! They will comment to each other how amazing it is and I think they just enjoy the fact that foreigners can appreciate their culture. With this in mind, make sure to not insult them by questioning why certain things are done (why do they slurp noodles, why do they bow a million times, etc.). Also, keep in mind that although many people don’t actually speak English, they can understand it, so don’t assume that they don’t know what you are saying!
However, because of this pride, they also hold onto myths, even after they have been proven untrue. For example, many Japanese people still believe in the myth that foreigners cannot sit seiza style (with legs underneath) because their legs are not as short as Japanese people’s. Also, they are always surprised that Westerners can use chopsticks!
Another myth that they often believe is that Japanese people can eat more rice because they have something special in their stomach from their genetics that allows them to digest rice better. Although scientifically proven false, they still continue to believe this. I also once had an overweight student tell me, underweight, that foreigners have an extra layer of fat because we eat too much meat or unhealthy foods, making us sweat more and get hot more easily. She wasn’t trying to be insulting; it was just what she believed. Even though I have dispelled many of these myths, I still continue to have such things told to me, which can be amusing at times, especially when I am sitting seiza style and they tell me foreigners can’t!
Another contradiction is the fact that most Japanese people don’t celebrate anniversaries, hardly celebrate birthdays, and don’t celebrate Christmas as most people are not Christians (I have to work on Christmas day and kids have school). What they do celebrate is New Year’s Day, cultural festivals, sports days, and, above all, weddings.
Weddings are huge here, with the bride usually sporting three different dresses: a western-style wedding dress, a kimono, and a cocktail dress with bright colors. The groom usually has a matching suit or kimono for each outfit, as well. They will make grand appearances in each outfit during the reception, with swelling music playing each time. The bride and groom get the complete spotlight, as there are no best men or bridesmaids. The reception is massive, with full-course meals, and the guests bring money instead of gifts. One big shock to me was that the family doesn’t get priority at weddings, the boss and co-workers do! They have a special table near the front at the reception, while the family sits in the back. In spite of this, usually only the family is invited to view the actual wedding, while friends and others come to the reception (or “wedding party” as they call it).
It may not surprise you to hear that their divorce rate is low, but what may shock you is the fact that most couples are not happily married. Businessmen are renowned for cheating on their wives and girlfriends, with special red-light districts for just such cases. However, the women won’t break up with them. Why? Culture. Japanese culture still places emphasis on the men in relationships and in daily life. Also, most women still don’t have good enough jobs or enough pay to make a living on their own, as women often make less money than men working the same jobs. The older generation also has a hard time finding work, as companies run differently in Japan. They are not based on experience, but on youth and how much one can move up in the company. New recruits are usually gathered from the graduating classes of universities. Switching or restarting jobs is almost not an option in Japan.
Technology & Finances:
With all the images of Tokyo’s fast-paced technological society, you would think Japan would be extremely modern and advanced, but they seem to reserve that only for the entertainment industry. In daily life, they scrape by, with schools not even using air conditioning in the heat of the summer and offices working from computers from the 90’s. They also don’t use credit cards! It is typical to use cash, even when paying bills. Now about the bills. They come in the mail and can be paid at any convenience store. Talk about convenience. You can set it up to take it out of your bank account, but if you can’t read kanji (Chinese based script of characters used in Japanese writing) then it’s off to the convenience store. Even for bills amounting in the ten thousands (in yen), you still must pay by cash. A lot of places don’t even accept credit cards, so be sure to ask before you are faced with embarrassment, and be sure to always keep a lot of cash on hand.
Although these are only a few things on a list full of cultural differences that I have noticed while teaching English in Japan, I hope this will be a good start for any who want to go to Japan or learn about Japanese people and their culture. There were many things I was aware of before coming to Japan, but thought them to be exaggerations. The toilets in the ground for women are real, as well as the electronic toilet seats with seat warmers and sound effects so people can’t hear you peeing.
In spite of these oddities, I have extremely enjoyed my stay here, and I hope that one day, I will be able to live here permanently. The wonders of Japan only make it more beautiful and mysterious, so I hope you will enjoy the Japanese way of life, whether living here, visiting, or even just reading about it. It is definitely a fascinating culture full of contradictions.
About the author: Rachel is 26 with a B.A. in English. She lived in Memphis, Tennessee, took the International TEFL Academy course online, and started her career in Japan in 2012. She currently lives in Fukuoka, Japan as an ESL teacher, teaching all ages from 2 to adults. In her spare time, she studies the Japanese language and the Japanese tea ceremony.
Read more about Rachel at Fukuoka, Japan Q&A with Rachel Beede and TEFL: The Easiest Way to Fulfill Your Dreams - Teach English in Japan. Also, be sure to watch her Video.