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Living in Japan: Personal Impressions
by Wendy Jones Nakanishi
I feel I know Japan and the Japanese well. I am the beneficiary of circumstances that have made that knowledge possible. I have lived here for over thirty years: not in some anonymous city but in a rural area where local families trace back their history for centuries, and customs have remained largely unchanged in the space of living memory. I am married to a Japanese farmer and have three biracial sons, and we inhabit a neighborhood that is like an extended enclave of my husband’s family.
This has granted me the privilege of seeing the
private side of the Japanese: to observe them in their ordinary family lives –
at home, at play. But I also have encountered the professional or public side.
I have been employed full-time since my arrival, at a private Japanese
university. I have attended countless meetings and worked on many committees.
When I am at my college I am treated as a Japanese and expected to act as one.
In this short article I would like to give a few personal
impressions of the Japanese, aware I may be accused of reprehensibly indulging
in stereotypes but willing to take the risk, because I think people who don’t
live here long-term may be interested in what life in Japan for Westerners is
‘really like’. These are generalizations, and there are naturally many
Japan is a
very safe society
It is one thing we all notice and are agreed upon,
‘we’ meaning us Westerners who come to live in this country for any length of
time. Japan is safe! We can leave a wallet on a park bench and it will still be
there an hour later. If it isn’t, it means somebody took it to the nearest police
station. Whether the police have it or it is still on the bench, its contents
will be intact: credit cards, money, everything.
Once I happened to leave a wad of bills, a considerable amount of cash – 50,000 yen, which is over four hundred dollars – on a cash machine in a bank, having just withdrawn that amount to cover my expenses for the following week. It wasn’t until I was in a grocery store half an hour’s drive away that I found my wallet was empty and, horror-stricken, realized what I had done. I apologized to the store cashier, who smiled sympathetically and put my shopping bags under the counter, ready for me to collect when I could pay for them, and rushed back to the bank. My heart sank when I found nothing on the cash machine. Then a bank teller saw me and beckoned to me. Someone had handed in the money. The bank had been able to trace who had withdrawn the cash. The teller had put my cash in an envelope, with my name on it. I had only to offer some form of identification before my weekly shopping money was restored to me.
This feeling of safety and personal security is
pervasive in Japan, especially in a rural area such as mine. I never have that
frisson of fear I used to experience when I was out late at night, walking in a
deserted or unfamiliar neighborhood in America or Europe. I have never suffered
sexual harassment. I don’t count my change when I buy anything. I don’t check that
all our doors are locked before we retire to our bedrooms at night.
I’ll give just one more example, but it is a typical
one. Last year, an Australian friend posted a photograph on his Facebook page.
It showed a thousand-yen note pinned to a sheet of paper wedged conspicuously under
a bicycle tire. The paper contained a handwritten apology to the effect that my
friend’s bicycle had inadvertently been knocked over and its lamp smashed. The
note-writer wanted my friend to use the thousand yen to get the lamp replaced.
This story reflects the value placed upon honesty in
Japanese society. My friend would never have been able to trace who had
accidentally tipped over his bike, yet the individual responsible felt it
incumbent to offer restitution. Also, the thousand-yen note was in plain sight,
perhaps for hours, in a crowded bicycle parking lot next to a busy train
station, but nobody took it.
are a dignified people
This is a matter related to the Japanese emphasis on
principled living. Although it can be tiresome to be stared at as a foreigner,
there is kind of compensation in the fact that we Westerners are confident that
this curiosity will never be accompanied by rude or aggressive behavior.
The majority of us Westerners in Japan work as
language teachers. Although our students tend to be too passive and quiet, we
agree we are lucky to have them. We need spend little time on classroom
management, on keeping order. Sometimes we may encounter students who look
outwardly rebellious, who may even boast garishly dyed hair, ripped clothing or
a pierced ear or two. These students might inspire apprehension, but we soon
find that even these apparently unruly individuals exhibit the same politeness
as their more conventionally clad classmates. The ‘rebels’ sit in meek silence
during our lessons. They bow when they are greeted and smile cheerfully and
acquiesce if they are asked to participate in any classroom activity.
The Japanese have been trained up since babyhood to act
politely, to think of others, and to suppress displays of selfishness. Getting angry
is considered an act of rudeness, of reprehensible immaturity, to be avoided at
all cost. This training in courtesy is invaluable in a densely populated
country such as Japan, with some 70% of its interior so mountainous that the
land is uninhabitable, leaving its many millions of citizens crowded into the
flat coastal areas. It is expedient if not essential that interactions are carefully
orchestrated to lessen stress and to keep potential disruption to a minimum in
the cramped conditions that are a feature of everyday life. Bowing is only a
small part of it.
They act considerately and behave unobtrusively,
habits so deeply ingrained that they are even reflected in their clothes. The
Japanese tend to dress conservatively, favoring, throughout life, variations on
the black and white of the uniforms most wore at primary, junior high and high
school. Yet at the same time they are stylish. The women are often impeccably
dressed. They spend great time and effort on presenting the best appearance in
public possible, considering it a breach of good taste, for example, to leave
home without makeup. Japanese men and women alike keep fit and trim and usually
dye their hair black well into old age. We Westerners here sometimes agree to
feeling scruffy in contrast.
The Japanese often wear white surgical masks in winter
to protect themselves from infection but, even more, to avoid infecting others.
My impression is that in public, they also tend to use their faces as masks,
hiding their true thoughts and feelings behind a bland, agreeable expression. I
used to call it ‘putting on the “scroot”’: the Japanese being inscrutable.
In my first years here, I was often struck by how the smiles
and laughter of Japanese people had meanings I had never before encountered.
Japanese sometimes laugh to cover up a potentially awkward or embarrassing
situation. Similarly, they smile to conceal disappointment or frustration: for
example, when, rushing down a platform to catch a subway train, they arrive at
the door just as it closes. A Westerner might be moved to kick the train as it
speeds away to vent frustration. A Japanese offers a pleasant smile, as if
missing by seconds the train he has rushed to board is a delightful, amusing
From their earliest years, the Japanese are taught to gaman: silently to endure the unpleasant
and even the unbearable. Children are trained up not to cry out when they fall
or hurt themselves. Women in childbirth are expected not to groan, let alone
scream, even though little or no pain relief is offered. Men offer no complaint,
or not publicly at least, when they are asked to work overtime or on weekends.
But the Japanese are very human! Like everyone else, they
are a deeply emotional people. It is just that they have learned to suppress
and regulate their feelings. Again, circumstances have dictated the necessity
of self-control. Japan is a small, crowded country with few natural resources,
an island nation peculiarly vulnerable to the forces of nature: frequently hit
by typhoons or rocked by earthquakes. Its inhabitants must interact
cooperatively to survive. This has led to the Japanese habit of curbing
egoistic impulses, of putting the needs of the group always before their own.
I am glad to report, however, that Japanese are provided a few opportunities to act
badly. Life would be too unrelentingly stressful if there weren’t a few safety
valves, times or occasions when it’s possible to let off steam without fearing
societal repercussions. Some Japanese men, particularly overworked businessmen,
seem to enjoy getting blindingly drunk and, in such a condition, are excused
any excesses. They can be found sprawled in the early hours of the morning on
station platforms or comatose within empty train carriages. Other stressed-out
Japanese find release in driving, exploiting the anonymity offered by being in
a car to indulge in anger. A Japanese behind the wheel can be as impatient and aggressive
− in other words, as badly behaved − as any Westerner.
second-class citizens in Japan
I have presented many positive aspects of Japan and
the Japanese. Here is one that is not so pleasant or agreeable or admirable. Many
Japanese males whom I have observed over the past thirty years seem to believe
that women are inherently inferior to men. It was not so very long ago that
women actually were expected to walk several paces behind any male figure they
were accompanying. As a foreigner with a doctorate, employed as a tenured
member of staff at a university, I am seen as ‘special’ and have been largely
exempt from the discrimination I think Japanese women routinely suffer.
In the small private university where I have worked
since my arrival in this country in the spring of 1984, male professors
outnumber female ones by a ratio of perhaps three or four to one. In the early
years of my employment, I was amazed to find that nearly all the female
professors were dokushin – single,
without children – until a woman working in my department explained that she
had felt she needed to make a choice either to pursue a career or to marry and
have babies. She couldn’t do both. The situation has improved slightly in
recent years, but change occurs only gradually in this country, with its
ancient traditions deeply embedded in the social fabric.
Although a number of equal opportunity laws have been passed in recent years designed to level the playing field for Japanese men and women, Japanese women still are routinely paid less than men and have far more limited career prospects. They are expected to quit full-time jobs after marriage. If they manage to keep working after marrying, they must quit if they become pregnant. Once their children are in school and they try to resume paid employment, they often can find only badly paid so-called part-time work: which might mean they must work as much as forty hours a week but can expect no benefits or insurance or bonuses or pension.
Despite or possibly even because of the restrictions
placed upon them, Japanese women enjoy the longest life expectancy in the
world. I am terribly impressed by their resilience, strength and courage.
Although they may only be allowed to serve tea, answer phones and make
photocopies in a company office, women ‘rule’ in the family environment. The
Japanese husband routinely entrusts his paycheck to his wife. She manages the
household and is responsible for the children, allotting her husband an
allowance each month for his personal expenses.
The northeast corner of the island of Shikoku I
inhabit is farmland: there are rice paddies, plots of vegetables and groves of fruit
trees, and it is an important bonsai-growing center. With the liberalization of
Japan’s agricultural markets in the early 1990s, farming has become less and
less profitable, and nowadays most of the young men belonging to traditional
farming families have had to get salaried employment in offices or factories to
make ends meet. It is their wives who have taken over the daily fieldwork.
Despite the vital role women play in this society,
they are still patronized, still valued for looks instead of brains or ability.
A popular format observed in Japanese television and radio programs, for
example, is the talk show hosted by a man and a woman. The man tends to be
middle-aged or elderly while the woman is young. The man can be undistinguished-looking,
but the woman must be radiantly beautiful. The man usually holds forth at great
length on whatever topic is presently under discussion, and the woman’s
contribution is limited to soft murmurs of assent, to the occasional gasp of
wonderment and admiration at the man’s acuteness, or to bursting into merry
giggles when her co-host condescends to make a joke.
My idea: although it is completely unacceptable that
Japanese women do not enjoy the same social status and employment opportunities
as men, it is because they are so strong that they can appear to be weak. It is
an apparent paradox, but one that is nevertheless true in my own experience.
are very kind
A Japanese friend once told me that I’ve known only
kindness from her compatriots because I’m a foreigner. This woman, whose
husband had an eye operation that went wrong when their son was in
kindergarten, leaving him blind, says she knows from bitter experience that they
are often less than kind to each other. It turns out her ‘friends’ advised her
to leave her husband once he had become disabled.
The Japanese are tough-minded, and I can credit her
assertion. But if you, a Westerner, are thinking of visiting Japan, you may be
assured of being treated with scrupulous politeness. You will never have to tip
taxi drivers or waiters or waitresses, and yet you can always be assured of
impeccable service. You won’t need to count your change after making a
purchase. And it is quite possible that you will benefit from extraordinary
acts of generosity and hospitality.
Soon after my arrival in this country thirty years
ago, I had occasion to board a bus in eastern Shikoku. I had been in the
country several months and had become complacent. I was sure I had boarded the
right bus. It gradually dawned on me that I was wrong, that we were going
somewhere entirely different from my intended destination. At that time, I
spoke very little Japanese. I stumbled up to the driver and held out a paper
with the name of the city I was bound for. He sighed deeply and gestured me
back to my seat before turning around the bus, backtracking several kilometers,
turning down a different road, and depositing me at the stop for the bus I
needed to take.
Incredible! And all the people in the bus understood what was happening. Rather than complaining at the detour, they smiled at me sympathetically, making clucking, tender noises. I felt I had become a child again, one being cared for and guided by kind adults.
Similarly, when my parents visited Japan some years
ago, they were anxious because they knew that after flying into Narita Airport
in Tokyo, they would need to make their way to Haneda Airport, some 30
kilometers across the city, to catch their flight to the city nearest me –
Takamatsu. Working full-time, I was unable to meet them at Narita. I just kept
my fingers crossed that they would somehow find their way.
We needn’t have worried. After disembarking from their
plane at Narita and collecting their luggage, my parents, no doubt looking lost
and helpless, immediately attracted the attention of a middle-aged Japanese
woman who insisted on escorting them across the large, busy airport to the
check-in counter for the Haneda bus. She refused to leave them until she had
made sure they had got the proper tickets and were settled on the bus, their
luggage safely stored below.
This was all effected despite the fact the Japanese
woman spoke little English and, naturally, my parents no Japanese.
There are many wonderful countries in the world inhabited
by admirable people. Japan is one of them. We Westerners who are long-term
residents here often congratulate each other on our good luck in fate’s having
led to our setting up home here. It’s such a civilized society. The buses and trains
run on time. The service in restaurants and shops is exceptional. Japanese culture
calls for people to be well-organized and helpful; for example, once Japan
learned it would host the Olympics in 2020, it began, seemingly overnight, to
provide English signs and even staff at public places, eager to assist any
Westerner in difficulty.
We foreigners will never be wholly accepted in this
homogeneous society. We will always be stared at and, no matter how long we
have lived here, asked where we are from and whether we can use chopsticks.
Still, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.
© 2015 by Wendy Jones Nakanishi. All rights reserved.
Wendy Jones Nakanishi has lived in Japan for over thirty years, teaching full-time at a small private college on the rural island of Shikoku. Her academic interests include eighteenth-century English literature, journals, diaries, and the works of Jane Austen, John Ruskin, Virginia Woolf, Iris Murdoch, and modern Japanese novels. Wendy has recently published a murder mystery set in Japan: Imperfect Strangers, under the pen name of ‘Lea O'Harra.’ Enjoy a thrilling story while learning from the author’s deep knowledge of Japanese culture: Imperfect Strangers: An Inspector Inoue Thriller