I noticed a few differences immediately.
When I decided to teach English in Japan, a big part of my decision was based on the idea that I wanted to go somewhere as different from the USA as possible. I know my understanding of the culture will grow throughout the year, but I didn’t want it to take that long to see the subtle differences between my hometown and this new unknown place.
The differences that I’ve noticed immediately aren’t massive, but they’re concrete. They’re not like some assertions I’ve heard, such as “the people are so much nicer,” which is subjective (and quite a generalization). They’re not like observations that “it’s harder to fit in as a foreigner,” which seems legit but would take years (and an actual attempt to ‘fit in’) to truly understand.
So with those exclusions, here are the differences I’ve noticed after 24 hours:
I’m sure most people have heard this one before. Upon entering a building in Japan, you take off your shoes. This isn’t the case in all public buildings — you don’t show off your socks in the shopping mall, for example — but it’s definitely a thing. In the training center for the company where I work, there’s a little cabinet beside the elevators. Here, you take off your shoes and replace them with a pair of slippers, so that you don’t track the dirt and grime of the outside world into the building (I assume).
It’s nice if your shoes are uncomfortable. A little awkward if your feet tend to take on — shall we say — an odor. It’s also kind cute to see my coworkers wearing them while they’re dressed up in their full business professional attire. Ah, yes, the usual: blazer, tie, pencil skirt, stockings and…house slippers.
2. Don’t Talk on the Trains
I had heard about this one from my research before I came over here, but it was still strange to see (or hear?) in action. Like any Americans abroad, my co-trainees were talking SUPER LOUDLY when we got on the train from the airport. We’d just gotten off a 14-hour plane ride, which was part of a 20-hour travel day, and we hadn’t had the chance to really talk with anyone in about that much time. Plus, none of us had been to Japan before yesterday, and we were excited to begin our new lives.
Someone eventually mentioned that we were being Those Foreigners. Like I said, I had read this before but honestly (conveniently) forgotten, so her reminder was welcome. Our conversation came to an end, and it was obvious that we had been the only ones making any kind of noise. It was so quiet, I felt like I had been sent to a time out to think about what I’d done.
It’s not necessarily bad to have a relaxing ride in contemplative silence, but it was a big change after spending this past weekend on the often-rowdy subways of Brooklyn, NY.
Don’t even think about crossing when the sign says stop!
I haven’t had a dramatic experience with this (yet), but this was one of the first things that I noticed. About 12 people and I were standing on one side of a crosswalk, staring across about 10ft of street..and no one was crossing. There were no cars coming, and our view of the street was unobstructed for a good while in both directions, but not a step was taken from the sidewalk.
On a related note, I saw my first crosswalk intersection. It was, as you can imagine, a 4-way intersection in which the entire intersection was covered in the white crosswalk stripes. Pedestrians could, as you would expect, walk anywhere within this square crosswalk during the “walk” time periods. Thus, you could get to point A to point C directly, instead of crossing from A to B during one “walk” period and subsequently from B to C (see super advanced image below for reference).
I feel like this is probably a thing in other places and I’m just not well-traveled enough to have seen it before…but it’s more interesting to believe that it works specifically in Japan because they trust people not to run out into the middle during a “stop” period and die.
4. Cash Only
This is definitely not specific to Japan, but I mention it because it was one of the few differences that the company I’m working for warned me about before I moved over here.
I noticed this in Manhattan last weekend, too. Is it a city thing that they prefer to take cash instead of credit cards? Is it a hole-in-the-wall type of restaurant thing, which kind of makes it a city thing because a lot of cities have tiny hole-in-the-wall types of restaurants? Back in the sweet suburbs of Marietta and Alpharetta, I had noticed a trend in the opposite direction. A few brick-and-mortar shops that I frequented had recently switched to accepting credit cards only – no cash.
The part of Japan where I’m currently staying (Nagoya) is the 4th biggest urban area in the country, so maybe it’s just a city thing. Once I move to the smaller city (think Jackson, Missisippi) of Takaoka, I’ll let you know if this is still a thing.
This is not a comprehensive list, but it’s late (or…it’s 7:36pm…but I have jet-lag, okay?), and I hit the biggest ones, so I’m off.