Some Things Are Hard To Understand. Culture Lesson #14

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

All expected and taken in stride by the Clampitts, and serendipitously, the Offspring being venturesome eaters would eat dog poo if drizzled with marinara sauce.

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.

Ko Men Ramen Shop Omotesando

The Ragin’ Ramen- Who Can Resist that Elixir of ExLax?

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.

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31 Responses to Some Things Are Hard To Understand. Culture Lesson #14

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed your blog again… I hope you enjoyed your noodles! Maybe all that running around caused you to keep yourself in bed during the rumblings 🙂 I like the new action plan!


    • amblerangel says:

      Hahaha! You know they just all feel the same to me and now that “the big one” is behind us- I feel like anyway- I’m just not worried anymore. I KNOW that is the wrong attitude and I’m really working hard to re establish that sense of urgency I once had. Starting today.


  2. Angela says:

    How on earth could you go back to sleep, I have felt in a state of constant jet lag for almost 4 weeks (with the exception of the few days we spent in Osaka and then I could sleep). Just when things felt better, we get that big wake up call! To top it all, the wind is mega today, up here on the 28th floor everything is creaking and cracking, I jsut have to turn the volume up on the TV, it drowns out the unpleasantness, oh and make another cuppa! Stay safe, Angela x


    • amblerangel says:

      Angela- I guess I think that we’ve already been through the “big one” and Tokyo made it through with minor damage. Since then I just haven’t been worried. There is an earthquake every 6 seconds somewhere in the world, the one we just suffered was the 4the largest on record. The chances of us being involved in another of that magnitude are small. I worry about a lot of things- but this is just not one of them for me. TAC – with all the glass and displays of bar ware- didn’t even have any broken bar ware according to their President… If I were in a different place, I might be more worried- obviously Haiti and Chile weren’t built to withstand earthquakes as examples- but I feel pretty safe here.


  3. Okay–this is really, really fascinating. Thank God you’re learning these lessons and passing them along to those of us who might, if radiation subsides, sometime in the next decade end up in your fine city/country. I had NO idea! Thank God the Clampits are testing the waters and mastering the dos and don’ts–almost, sort of, kind of–you know, in their own Clampit kind of way!


  4. Olga SE says:

    Your restaurant experience was really astonishing. As for the fact that you didn’t feel like getting up at night, it just proves that people do get used to anything no matter how frightening it may be.


  5. Heard about the earthquake, glad to hear you’re all okay. You are right, our Western minds just do not get some things. Jishuku is such a strange concept, as is that hideous squat toilet and what the hell are those awful looking snacks? The first one looks like someone’s guts and well, I don’t even want to know what that second pink thing is *shakes in fear*….the fish heads are cool though, I’d not want to eat one but it would at least amuse 🙂

    P.S I’m saving your award for a post next week, where I’ll share 7 strange facts about myself (yes, I really am a vampire…no, not really) *rolls eyes*


    • amblerangel says:

      Aren’t those things awful? And I have not a clue as to what they are accept the origin is ocean. Probably organ. And there is a logo for that award I just saw- you can search Versatile blogger and find it that way….


  6. The Nose says:

    Very interesting post!! What would you do without Andretti-san? He must feel like he has to spend the day with a 4 year old- “Why Why Why Why………..But Why”

    So true about the economic differences. Because the US economy is driven by American consumerism, if we stayed inside our economy would completely tank. Hence, images of George W. Bush urging us to get out and “enjoy travel…etc” after 9/11, also supported by the American doctrine of “Show No Fear”- (also evidenced by the proverb, not sure the culture of origin — “To forget is the best revenge” ). Americans were encouraged to show the world that we could get on with our lives and our shopping (of course while leaving the American military complex to deal with the perpetrators). Same for post- Katrina.

    I think the Japanese way seems very spiritual. Like a prolonged moment of silence.

    You are doing what a good ex-pat should do- Combining the best of both the cultures. You are doing everything you can to help those affected, by opening your heart, and your wallet. You are donating your time and offering prayers. You are doing what is best for the Japanese by their standards, but also allowing time for your own cultural means of stress management (that also happens to be good for their economy. Surely that counts?).

    I would probably give Andretti-san a huge hug and kiss just for being so honest and forthright. Which would violate all Japanese cultural norms and probably turn him to stone. Maybe just a thousand and one very low bows (hands at sides) as thanks for taking such good care of my sister!

    Sorry if my post was rambling. No sleep, in hotel, on “vacation”, with febrile kid with strep throat. 9 hour drive from home. Other two probably incubating right now.


    • amblerangel says:

      I thought a friend of mine was going to hug Andretti-san so I warned him before she got in the car. Although absolutely stunned at the idea, he took it very well. I’ve been laughing ever since. He’s so sweet I’m sure he would’ve allowed it although I’m not sure he would’ve returned with gusto.

      I’ve often thought about 9/11 vs this earthquake and the response to it. I think the death toll- and number of missing- here is closing in on 20,000.


  7. This has been such an interesting post. I’m always amazed when here in Africa something bad happens, and life continues as usual for everyone else. The idea that a whole nation gives up having fun for an extended period, to show solidarity with those who have suffered loss of life and their homes, is quite mind-blowing and touching. I wonder whether the Japanese openly mourning the tragedy will help them to deal with it better?


    • amblerangel says:

      I would think it does hence the beginning of the tradition? I don’t know. It certainly shows moral support for those who lost loved ones. After looking at the pictures of the impacted areas- former towns are now debris fields, littered flattened areas covered in mud- maybe knowing the nation mourns as you live in a shelter for months trying to rebuild your life might give some solice (sp)?


      • I saw some footage of the devastated areas with Japanese people showing very clear facial signs of their distress and confusion. Are people in the rest of Japan also seen to be weeping openly – or does the necessity to maintain “Face” make them more stoic?

        I like The Nose’s description of “a prolonged moment of silence.” Westerner’s get so uncomfortable with long silences. I remember when my father died, well-intentioned people would often make “stupid” (upsetting) comments to my mother, instead of just keeping her company without talking.


      • amblerangel says:

        Yes- you’ll very rarely get much emotion out of a Japanese person. So- to see that is true distress. As for the long silence, one thing I learned coming over is that Japanese don’t feel the need to fill lapses in conversation and see them as a time to reflect on the conversation. In other words- shut your mouth. So it seems like it actually is a prolonged moment of silence- something that they are very comfortable with.


  8. jacquelincangro says:

    I’ll take the tricked out toilet any day. I wonder if it plays the song from the movie “Flushed Away.” 🙂

    Glad you’re okay after last night’s quake. Being from the East Coast, I think I’d be really nervous even with the aftershocks. I hope they subside soon.


    • amblerangel says:

      I actually love the toilets and now think of our American toilets as vulgar. Believe me, a lot of people have not come back and I don’t expect they will- the after shocks and radiation fears are too much for them.


  9. sweffling says:

    I love that Japanese custom: it doesn’t feel counter intuitive to me, just exactly right. Economically it is a different thing of course. When my mother died I felt just like Auden’s poem, “Stop the world, put out the lights” etc and it felt dreadful that the world went on as usual. Thank you so much for these insights into their culture, one day I hope to visit Japan and maybe you will help me not to offend someone:)


    • amblerangel says:

      I’m starting to understand it more as I put myself in their shoes. I’m sure when your world has stopped it’s comforting for acknowledgement that lasts longer than a couple of days before business as usual. Thanks for that perspective. It made my heart hurt reading it. I would like one day not to offend these wonderful people!


  10. Ashmore says:

    Ahhhh, Lee’s Tomb, may it rest in peace! (you know Odum’s brother has the old sign in his garage). It’s nice to know something we did there has actually become useful later in life…who knew? How to con a frat boy into buying you beer when you were out of money, surprisingly a less useful life skill…especially now that I’m married. Go figure.


  11. Tar-Buns says:

    Once again, so many memories. The squat toilet PLUS sharing with a man in the same bathroom was quite an adjustment when I lived in Japan. I also remember the few bigger earthquakes I felt while living there. I remembered to get up and open the sliding door and stand in the door jam. Being from the midwest, earthquakes were knew to me. Glad you are not consumed with fear while living your life in her country.


    • amblerangel says:

      Earthquakes are new to me too- I’m used to tornadoes, hurricanes, and kudzu. Tokyo has very strict building codes in place for earthquake construction and it faired well during this one. Most of the buildings have been built since the code was enforced 40 years ago. I would be much more afraid in California where the buildings are older. Not sure about the other towns- Kobe didn’t do very well as an example 10 years ago. That was a 7 something….


  12. Dana says:

    While it might not make sense from a Western standpoint, I think the solidarity and respect that the Japanese people show to each other in this time of recovery is beautiful and admirable! So… no more Ramen shop for a while?


    • amblerangel says:

      We’ll continue on as usual with the exception that in the company of Japanese we won’t discuss our activities that don’t follow the custom. For this, foreigners aren’t expected to follow the custom apparently just be respectful of the Japanese as they do it. That is where some folks are getting in to trouble- telling the Japanese how they should be doing things differently. We can be most helpful in this situation by going about our normal business- most shop keepers are very glad to see us- for now, the foreigners are helping them stay afloat.


  13. 2summers says:

    I am so terrified of squat toilets. I’m just not accurate enough for them. My mom and I managed to spend two weeks volunteering at an orphanage in India and never use one. There was a western toilet at our guest house and we would just hold it all day until we got home. Thank god squat toilets are not the norm in South Africa.

    Kudos to you for helping to keep the Japanese economy going. But I’m distressed that the ramen noodle place won’t take your money.


  14. Ayaaaah – the joys of squat toilets – some are better than others – I could write a book! Those super-sonic ones are also a bit scary – what if one of the buttons is actually for “Eject Occupant” or something even more sinister!


  15. Michi says:

    You went back to sleep through a 7.4?! I must say, you have cojones!

    I also attended a seminar when I first moved to Spain. It’s very true! I especially agree with these two things you wrote:

    “…it is imperative for a foreigner to set aside judgment of unfamiliar and questionable practices when entering new culture in order to be successful in assimilation.”

    “…one must acknowledge and accept them as the way it is in that particular culture- neither right or wrong- without judgment.”

    It’s been especially hard for me to get used to the massive amounts of pig products, but I’ve assimilated (as in, I try to ignore it and will occasionally take a bite to please the in-laws). Haha, but Spaniards think it’s weird that we’re all into cows in the U.S. Another thing that’s been difficult is the way of thinking. It took me a while to realize it, but the small-town Andalusian Spanish culture is a very open and vulgar culture. The people are charming, no doubt, but the fact is that most are too embarrassed to even say “thank you” or “please” because they think it makes you “weak”!

    P.S. I hope you and your family are safe, and that there are no more earthquakes!!


    • amblerangel says:

      That is very interesting! That is one that would make a Southerner cringe- because crassness and manners are very much appreciated. I understand how that must take some getting used to! The pig- we eat a lot of that….pickled pig feet, chitlins….. yea- all o that.


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