The Japan National Tourism Organisation has a series of practical guides designed to help the English-speaking traveler enjoy an independent trip in Japan.
It turns out that many streets in Japan have no names and the buildings are numbered in a random fashion that was possibly invented by a 13th century Buddhist monk. The secret of deciphering the addressing scheme appears to have died with him. In two weeks, we never really looked for an address. Getting to the hotel on the first day in each city involved taking a taxi to guarantee getting there. Despite failing on a regular basis, Google Maps worked just enough to get us to the locations we were looking for. Instead of the address, we just walked about until the blue dot was on top of the red one! Sometimes it did take walking in circles…
However, when it comes to navigating cultural differences, no guide can prepare you adequately, and there is no app for it either.
This was our first trip to a land where we didn’t understand the language at all or even the alphabet! The Japanese use the Chinese writing system, which does not suit their language, and which takes ten years for Japanese children to learn. Go figure!
The Japanese are very different from everyone else, their uniqueness probably deriving in the main from three principal factors: their history of isolation, the crowded conditions imposed by their geography and the Japanese language itself.
Packed together in large numbers in big cities, the Japanese have developed complex social skills, which led to the phenomenon known as web society – that is, great interdependence between all members of a group and an abundance of social and moral obligations.
The world over, people behave a certain way because the way they think is governed by the language in which they think. The structure of a person’s language influences the manner in which he or she understands reality and behaves with respect to it. The Japanese use language in a completely different way from everyone else. What is actually said has hardly any meaning or significance whatsoever. The Japanese use their language as a tool of communication, but the words and sentences themselves give little indication of what they are saying. What they want and how they feel is indicated by the way they address their conversation partner. Smiles, pauses, sighs, grunts, nods and eye movements convey everything. The Japanese leave their fellow Japanese knowing perfectly well what has been agreed to, no matter what was said, while foreigners leave a conversation or meeting with a Japanese with a completely different idea. While the Japanese focus on the mood of the conversation, other nationalities tend to focus on the content. Consequently, all their hear is platitudes or, even more suspicious, flattery. However, the Japanese are simply being courteous and caring.
The Japanese have a keen sense of the unfolding or unwrapping of time. They are more concerned not with how long something takes to happen, but with how time is divided up in the interests of properness, courtesy and tradition. They are very generous in their allocation of time to you and your transaction. That can also make for long queues and long waiting times! Of course, all the Japanese in the queue wait patiently, while I am standing there thinking, good lord, how long can this possibly take?
In Japan’s conformist and carefully regulated society, people like to know at all times where they stand and where they are at: this applies to both social and business situations. The mandatory, two-minute exchange of business cards between executives meeting each other for the first time is one of the clearest examples of a time activity segment being used to mark the beginning of a relationship.
Other events that require not only clearly defined beginnings and endings but also unambiguous phase-switching signals are the tea ceremony, New Year routines, annual cleaning of the house, and even cherry blossom viewing! A Japanese person cannot enter any number of activities in the casual, direct manner a Westerner might adopt. The Japanese must experience an unfolding or unwrapping of the significant phases of the event. It has to do with Asian indirectness, but in Japan also involves love of compartmentalisation of procedure, of tradition, of the beauty of ritual.
The Japanese are masters of courtesy. Standards of politeness are much higher in Japan than anywhere else in the world. All the Japanese people who took photos of the bears asked for permission first, even if it just took the form of ‘ok?’. Ok!
It is easy to say be very polite at all times, but what is polite in one society is not necessarily polite in another! We got by with lots of smiles, apologising when we got things wrong, and kawai (cute) bears! The bears dressed in kimonos made a particularly big and favourable impression 🙂
Speak slowly and distinctly. They smile and nod constantly, but may not understand much. Ideally, you would learn some Japanese words, we got by with arigato only. Bow if you can manage it, restrict your body language, do not wave your arms about, do not touch people unnecessarily and do not tell jokes unless they are at your own expense and are easily understood. And do not make a racket! Apart from being told off on the plane for laughing too loud 🙂 (I was also told off for that in a workplace once, but unlike on the plane, I ignored that complaint and carried on!) I caused some consternation in a souvenir shop in Takayama when I and two Japanese teenagers found a talking doll extremely funny and we all, including the doll, burst into loud laughter at the same time. We got some telling looks from the staff in the shop, but of course they were far too polite to say anything. Well, I did buy the doll!
It has been said that humour crosses national boundaries with difficulty, especially when heading east. Apart from the Koreans who appear to like everybody’s jokes, few Asians are amused by American or (most) European jokes. The Confucian or Buddhist preoccupation with truth, sincerity, kindliness and politeness automatically eliminates humour techniques such as sarcasm, satire, exaggeration and parody. They also find little merit in jokes about religion, sex and underprivileged minorities. Sick or black humour is definitely out.
Laughing over funny dolls is in!
Privately, the Japanese are convinced of their uniqueness, of which one facet is intellectual superiority. Privately, most, if not all, nations believe they are superior to everyone else. Unlike the French, the Japanese base this belief not on intellectual verbal prowess, but on the power of strong intuition. On a side note, I have to say that Jean-Luc spoke impeccable English and his eloquence was outstanding.
Our next cultural challenge will be back in Europe. It is time we visit Germany. The contrast to Japan will be significant, even though they are both conformist societies. The Germans have a tendency to be blunt and disagree openly rather than going for politeness or diplomacy. Should suit me just fine! Irony, sarcasm and subtle undertones usually fall on deaf ears, you have to say what you mean. Again, not a problem. I sometimes use bluntness just because I am bored! That usually causes a flurry of reactions and I have something entertaining to watch 🙂
Serious-minded, factual Germans do not split their sides on hearing American jokes about Texas, which usually depend on gross exaggeration. The story about the Mexican driving just as fast as he could for 24 hours to get out of Texas, but finding he had not managed it, thrills the American imagination but sounds far-fetched to the German, who might reply, “He should have used a German car”. Now that is funny!