Anticipating the vast differences between Western and Eastern Cultures, Spouse and I studied like college crammers in order to prepare ourselves and the Offspring for what would certainly be a staggering change in the daily communication. Upon arrival, we all participated- separately in a two-day seminar designed for each of us, to further enhance our understanding of the Japanese culture. According to the gurus, it is imperative for a foreigner to set aside judgement of unfamiliar and questionable practices when entering new culture in order to be successful in assimilation.
A few famous examples which test Western limits immediately come to mind. Squat toilets:
These didn’t phase me- as a friend from college pointed out- we had plenty of experience from our college days squatting over many a nasty toilet at Lee’s Tomb in Tuscaloosa. Of course, the dichotomy to the squat toilet is the Super Toilet which does everything for you:
Heated seat, plays music, makes a flushing sound to cover those embarrassing sounds, has varying flush pressure depending on “load volume,” has at least 4 settings for the bidet functions depending on gender, the lid opens when one walks in- I know one day it’s going to say my name, at night a sensor light guides the visitor in like an airplane, etc, etc. the list goes on. Ours is the low tech version- as is the camera that took the pictures.
For most people, the deal breaker to moving to Japan is the food. I don’t know why that would put the kibosh on a chance to enjoy the Far East with these yet unidentified tasty treats available to tantalize even the most discerning pallette:
This delicious snack is $140.00
Others are unanticipated and not covered in guides, classes and casual coffee talk.
After a week of do gooding Ouiser really needed to revert back to demonic ways of old for at least a day. My credit cards whined that a good outing in Omotesando or Ginza followed by a healthy dose of ramen noodles would clear the mind unlike any Ashtanga yoga session ever could. Andretti-san readily agreed as it allowed for much more tv time while he sat parked in the entryway of whatever store I happened to be accosting.
In Ginza, home to all the large department stores and retail outlets, I bee lined to the food basement for gifts and discovered this slice of Heaven:
Normally elbow to elbow, Japanese women with signs directing people in an orderly fashion through queues, not a competitor-err shopper- was in sight. I gleefully skipped and twirled through the store, swinging all 10 bags, knocking down every hapless pooch toting soul in my wake. “Oops- SO sorry. Was that a Pomeranian that I just knocked over the escalator shaft? He’s so small and fluffy- and he’s got on a down jacket- I’m sure he’s not hurt. “
My next stop was my most favorite ramen noodle shop in Omotesando. A weekly patron, I’m always the only Gaijin- pronounced like guy- jean- means bad word for foreigner- and the staff have watched me progress in Japanese with lightening speed from “Hi’ to “How are you?” to “It is sunny today,” in just 9 short months. Always silent and smiling, they ensure I never leave without getting my frequent eater’s card stamped.
Normally a line snakes around the corner of the building however, that day, I walked straight up. A waiter opened the door, bowing and talking incessantly and as I entered, the cooks all yelled and clapped. Granted, I am used to this behavior upon entering clubs and social events, but not my ramen shop. I was the only one in the restaurant. I felt like I should order at least my usual plus gyoza and a couple of beers. Upon leaving, they refused to let me pay, stamped my frequent eater card 10 times, opened the cash register and handed me a fist full of 100 yen off cards. I won’t have to pay for the next 5 visits. How do I get that sort of appreciation at home?
“Andrett-san, What the Hell is going on around here. It’s been almost 4 weeks since the earthquake. I know why the foreigners aren’t here-I’ve heard the new name- FLY-jin- everyone was scared and flew home. Are the Japanese scared? The greatest shoppers on the planet- the Japanese- are all gone? NO ONE is on the streets. Everyone is going to work?”
Andretti-san “Japanese people are in mourning. In respect for those killed and lost, no one will show happiness. So, people won’t go out and enjoy because others are suffering.”
Ouiser “For how long?”
Andretti-san “Until the power plant is fixed maybe.” Yikes. That could be a year or longer.
This concept is called Jishuku. All over Japan, celebrations, golf outings, parties, are being cancelled out of respect for those lost in the earthquakes and tsunamis. This is a difficult concept for Westerners. Why do something that actually hurts the Japanese economy at a time when it faces crisis from this same force? Other countries have stopped buying Japanese goods due to radiation fears, Japanese people have stopped eating out, shopping and enjoying social outings for the forseeable future further depressing the economy, the government has encouraged the people not to publicly celebrate the cherry blossom season out of respect for the victims- hanami, and the government faces huge financial burdens rebuilding the stricken areas. According to a Western mindset, people should be doing the opposite. Get out- spend money- revive the economy! To a Western mind, it’s counterintuitive. However, this is exactly where the warning from the cultural gurus takes on meaning. Some culture values and choices we can not understand/accept therefore in order to best assimilate one must acknowledge and accept them as the way it is in that particular culture- neither right or wrong- without judgement.
In this difficult time for Japan, we will choose to respect the choices of the Japanese people, be mindful with whom we are discussing our daily activities, and bolster the economy by buying local.
Except for shoes. Which just don’t fit the giant Clampitt feet.
*** We had a 7.4 Earthquake in the middle of the night. We had to alter our emergency plan as Spouse was the only one worried enough to actually get out of bed to investigate. The rest of us woke up enough to realize that yes, there was an earthquake, yes, it was bigger than normal, and then, we all just went back to sleep. At breakfast, we all decided that from here on out, Spouse will have to make sure we all get our LAZY you know what’s out of bed and in to the door jams.