First Impressions of Japan

Written by Julen Madariaga on October 4th, 2009

First impressions are usually mistaken, but they are also interesting because the eye is alert to any novelty, and the culture clash is rich with ideas. Warning: this post contains sweeping generalizations. Take it for what it is, and if you are serious about understanding Japan you might want to look somewhere else.

I came to Japan quite randomly, I wanted to spend the holidays in a quiet and relaxing place,  and in the week of the Chinese National Day, Japan seemed the only place near enough with the right conditions. I am preparing for the high level HSK later this month, and the plan was to take a few hours a day to practise my characters.

I chose the South of Japan on purpose, with the vague idea that they would probably be a bit more relaxed than in the North, and therefore more suited to my Southern European nature. I soon found out my assumption was wrong.  For one reason, there seems to be no such a thing as “South Japan”. Although this place is clearly in the South, they call it West Japan.  And the character of the people here is diametrically opposed to any notion of latin indulgence I might have harboured.

The cultural shock came right from the first contact. It was the passport controller at the airport of Fukuoka. I had been given the immigration card in the airplane and, like usual, I had quickly filled my “address on destination” box with a lazy “Hotel Nagasaki”. I couldn’t remember the real name of the hotel, and anyway these things are never checked in any reasonable country. In Japan they are.  And that is how I met my second Japanese.

“What did you write in this box?,” said the inspector when I was led to his office, pointing at the place in my card.

“Hotel Nagasaki?” I said.

“There is no hotel by this name”.

“No, no, I didn’t mean it literally,” I explained, “It is short for ‘a hotel in Nagasaki’.”

“Reservation receipt please?”

“Er.. it is in my mailbox, I haven’t printed it out.”

And they took me to a series of offices until they found a place where I could connect to the internet and produce my hostel reservation from hostelworld.  This took about an hour, enough to convince them that I was a dangerous outlier, so the inspector led me to the searching department.

My third Japanese was an older man who did the most meticulous search I have seen in my life, even feeling with his bare fingers all along the sole of my well seasoned travel socks. He searched into every possible hiding place in my bags and my body, except for that precise one that you were just imagining.

All the while, the three of them -my first three Japanese -  treated me with scrupulous respect, constantly smiling, and polite to the point of scary.

One of the things that was shocking in my first dealings in the shops is the “hi!” sound that they emit all the time, to say hello or to hand you something. It comes constantly and accurately, timed like a semiquaver, dressing any human exchange with a singular martial tone.  But the most awe inspiring feature is their absolute, compulsive, anal obsession with cleanliness. This country must be the cleanest place I have seen in the World by a large margin.

I came to this conclusion during lunch in one Western cafe in Nagasaki, were I witnessed some peculiar behaviour. It was raining outside, and every time a new client finished paying his order, the cashier walked around the bar with a clean tissue and bent down to wipe the drops of water left by the client’s shoes. A completely unreasonable action, even for safety purposes, because the other side of the cafe next to the entrance door was permanently wet and left unwiped.

The only explanation, I figured after a while, was that the entrance area was out of the field of vision of the cashier, hidden by the tables. It wasn’t a safety procedure, it was just that she just could not bear the sight of some drops of water on the spotless floor in front of the bar, even if it was almost pure H2O from the immaculate street outside.

I am impressed by this aspect of the Japanese culture, and I wonder how  the thousands of Japanese living in Shanghai cope with the hygiene situation there. I guess this explains why, being by far the largest foreign community in Shanghai, we see so little of them. They must all stick to their Gubei compounds and restaurants and avoid leaving the area unless it is strictly necessary.

The service in the restaurants here is excellent, and the food is prepared with so much care that you actually feel sorry to eat it. The Japanese like things well done, and they manage because, like most Chinese, they are very hard workers. But there is an essential difference in the motivations: Chinese exert themselves for a dream, to buy a car or a better house, or just to avoid being left behind by their fast ecoomy. Japanese already have all those things. Like Westerners, they have little left to dream that can be bought with money.  So it seems that they  work for the sake of work well done, out of a strong sense of duty and perfection.

When I came to Japan, I was prepared to find meticulous people who revere order. I thought it would be somehow similar to Germany, and although that kind of country is not exactly my idea of fun, it definitely fitted the bill for my week of retirement and study. But Japan is not even comparable to Germany. As far as I have seen it goes further in the field of obsession, to an extreme that for a newcomer -a Southern European one, at any rate- feels like borderline pathologic.

I don’t want to judge the character of the different peoples.  Each culture has its own ways, and all is well as long as we get along. I just wonder if the little world of efficiency and perfection that the Japanese have built around them is not but an exhausting illusion, and if, somewhere in the middle of all their productive activity, they find the time to think of what is important and just enjoy. The people I am meeting here-starting from the fourth one- are positive and friendly, and I have no reason to suspect they are not contented.

I have just been speaking with a PhD in electro microscopy who is in Nagasaki for a World congress in the field. He tells me that more than half of the participants are German and Japanese, because these two countries rule in electro microscopy applications. Somehow I am not surprised.

“It is a good thing we have Japanese and Germans,” I told him, “Otherwise we would be in trouble to wipe the dust between the atoms”

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Comments so far ↓

  1. Oct
    8
    8:07
    PM
    FOARP

    I’m currently living in Tokyo, working a three-month contract. Yes, people halting at a pedestrian crossing on a small road with not a car in sight is one of the strangest things I have ever seen. Then you contrast this with the polite chaos that is my morning commute to work - people simply shoving others out of the way in order to get on the train, pushing themselves against each other like some vast, joyless, impromptu orgy. None of this makes any sense to me, but it works. In fact it works very, very well. I have found the Japanese people to be friendly, open-minded, and well-educated, but also (like my home country) somewhat insular. The countries that Japan reminds me of most are Britain, Switzerland and Germany, in that order, but Japan is also much more than that, it is a free and living society which has maintained many of its own traditions.

    [Reply to this comment]

  2. Oct
    8
    8:54
    PM
    Uln

    Hi, nice to see you around here again. I just left Tokyo today escaping the typhoon, I was fed up of so much rain and headed South again. Pity next time we can try to meet for a beer.

    Re the Japanese: I also noted the ressemblance: UK for the insularity and Germany/Switzerland for the obsession with perfection, although I saw the germanic side more. In any case, like you say, I am sure that there is much more to Japan than that, and I would love to have the same opportunity as you and spend there a few months.

    For the long term, I don’t think I would like it so much. This society might be free and alive as you say, but it is also very closed, probably the most mono-ethnic in the developed world, and the impression I have is that neatness and “things well done” are more valued than tolerance and human relations.

    Of course all this is just a matter of personal taste, I can understand some people prefer Japan. But for my part, I already miss the chaos and chattiness of China, even if I have to cover my nose every time I pass the public toilet down the road.

    [Reply to this comment]

    FOARP Reply:

    Should have stayed. It was the sunniest weather I’ve seen all week - even if it was a little bit breezy! I too find myself missing the somewhat more slap-dash manner of Mainland China and Taiwan, but I’m telling myself that it will be different when I can speak the language a bit better.

    [Reply to this comment]

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