Too Long In Japan
December 17, 2002 12:26 AM   Subscribe

You've been in Japan too long when... A) are not surprised to wake up in the morning and find that the woman who stayed over last night has completely cleaned your apartment, even though you'll probably never ever meet her again. B) are not surprised to wake up in the morning and find that the woman who stayed over last night has completely cleaned your apartment, even though you'll probably never ever meet her again. C) ...your hair is thinning and you consider it "barcode style". Or perhaps if you're unsurprised that such a historically isolationist nation is now so uniquely and openly fascinated with the opinions of those who have moved to their This is somewhere I must travel to.
posted by effugas (68 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Aargh. B is supposed to read:

...when in the middle of nowhere, totally surrounded by rice fields and abundant nature, you aren't surprised to find a drink vending machine with no visible means of a power supply...

Sorry, YALCPFU (Yet Another Linux Cut&Paste...)

If a mod could fix that, I'd appreciate it.

posted by effugas at 12:30 AM on December 17, 2002

Uhm, links are slightly NSFW.
posted by cip at 12:47 AM on December 17, 2002

"The following were collected from various Usenet groups"
posted by planetkyoto at 1:00 AM on December 17, 2002

Man I wanna visit Japan so bad. Their culture is just so far removed from the West. And the TV!! What they're doing in the US now in terms of reality TV is what Japan was doing 15 years ago.
posted by PenDevil at 1:10 AM on December 17, 2002

Man, I was thinking about some career involving japan but after reading this I don't think so..... too weird, too... unamerican
posted by BackwardsHatClub at 1:16 AM on December 17, 2002

If you're interested in a foreigner's perspective on living and working in Japan, Hunkabutta is the place for you. Wonderful pictures, too.
posted by emmling at 1:24 AM on December 17, 2002


Isn't life a bit too short to stick to only one frame of reference?

posted by effugas at 2:20 AM on December 17, 2002

Isn't life a bit too short to stick to only one frame of reference?

Perhaps. But I doubt I'd base leaving for a new frame of reference on women who clean up after me and powerless vending machines...

--Not Dan

posted by The God Complex at 2:31 AM on December 17, 2002


Every place has its quirks, but I know of no other country that has a tv show dedicated to airing the observations of foreigners(not just americans, that's the news *laughs*) about themselves. That's

emm, hunka is *fantastic*. Did you see the link about the IT teacher in Kabul?

posted by effugas at 3:01 AM on December 17, 2002

A few more here too.
posted by curiousg at 3:22 AM on December 17, 2002

I am currently in Japan doing some training for a software product.

I have to say that my expectations were nothing like reality. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but this wasn't it. Not better or worse than my expectations - just very different.

The Japanese I've run into have always been very helpful, and seem both amused and flattered at my astoundingly bad attempts to speak their language.

I don't know if I would WANT to move here, but it seems like a very liveable place. Ok, I'd have to get used to never being looked at in the eye, and seeing people read porno mags on the trains, but I suppose I wouldn't notice after a while.

I'm only here for a two week trip, so that certainly isn't nearly enough time to get a proper impression of a people and their culture. Even so, I'm very glad I had the chance to see it.

If you have the change, take it. You'll be glad you did.
posted by hadashi at 3:42 AM on December 17, 2002

Is it just me, or did I detect a massive amount of ex-pat snootiness on this site? It's like 'Screw you, you ignorant parochial non-Japanese speaking Americans'.
I'm all for cultural exchange, but there's nothing at all wrong with being ignorant, provided you have the willingness to learn.
posted by RokkitNite at 4:34 AM on December 17, 2002

"Have the chance". *sigh* Why do I even use the preview button?
posted by hadashi at 5:07 AM on December 17, 2002

Whoa...snootiness? Speaking as an ex-ex-pat, I don't know of any who were being snooty. Certainly there are many of us on the site, but there are many republicans too and you don't see them...oh wait....

I lived in Japan for a few years, married a Japanese woman, and return yearly for some sort of Hajj (though really she just wants to see her parents). I can attest, Japan is far stranger than those examples indicate. Of course, if you find strangeness wonderful and intriguing, it's heaven. If you find things that are "unamerican" to be bad, don't bother going. I've seen enough ex-pats living there who do nothing but complain and act "american" as an excuse to be rude.
posted by Dantien at 5:08 AM on December 17, 2002

This is somewhere I must travel to.

I wouldn't advise it with that attitude, or those silly preconceptions either.

I've seen enough ex-pats living there who do nothing but complain and act "american" as an excuse to be rude.

Yes there are bad examples everywhere, but I've seen enough former ex-pats who write American as "american", and sneeringly stereotype Americans as "rude", blatantly and mysteriously ignoring the hundreds of American TV personalities, wrestlers, and other members of Japanese society (Korea too), past and present, who are and were culturally acclimated in both language and culture, functioning normally.
posted by hama7 at 5:30 AM on December 17, 2002

i love japan, but i don't agree that the culture is SO alien.
i've just returned to the uk from a two-week business trip to osaka. yes, things are different out there. there's so much more respect for a start. and those electric toilets! (i can't help thinking that the coming-together of water, mains electricity and exposed body parts is asking for trouble) but at the end of the day, they DO have toilets, they drive cars, they watch tv, they wear trousers. and for those homesick yanks they have bigmacs, kfc AND starbucks.

to be honest, i was saddened by the (inevitable?) draw towards american culture. wandering around shinsaibashi, where EVERY clothes store sells only american clothes (ucla faded t-shirts, converse allstars) was quite a miserable affair. traditional japanese culture is being diluted, or commodified. i asked a local where i could get a t-shirt with kanji or katakana writing on it, and he said there aren't any, because people don't want kanji or katakana on t-shirts - they all want western slogans in western script.

and i'm with RokkitNite - i didn't find the list funny, i just thought it was smug and self-satisfied.
posted by nylon at 5:31 AM on December 17, 2002

Okay Hama7, you got me. I forgot to capitalize a word. Gosh. What a jerk I must be. And of course I meant ALL americans...what else could I have meant? And thanks for the kind tone in your response.

Nylon, you may find the situation different in the remote areas. I lived in a pretty remote mountain village up north and it's not too terribly "Americanized" just yet. The big cities are far more international.

In fact, it's alot like the U.S. in that our big cities have a stronger international flavor than our small ones...which tend to be more isolated and "old-fashioned.
posted by Dantien at 5:35 AM on December 17, 2002

Their clothes are different from our clothes.
posted by Space Coyote at 5:57 AM on December 17, 2002

ah yes, good point, Dantien. i didn't want to be so patronising as to assume that in the more rural areas people still lived by the way of the katana. but on the other hand maybe it was patronising of me to assume that they didn't.

a fun and more sympathetic guide to japanese cultural quirks can be found here at the quirky japan homepage.
posted by nylon at 6:05 AM on December 17, 2002

There is nothing snooty about the list. The target audience is long-term residents. If you haven't lived in Japan it only comes across as snooty because you're outside the loop.

Others discussing something you haven't experienced for yourself doesn't mean you deliberately being snubbed. That's just paranoid.
posted by dydecker at 6:13 AM on December 17, 2002

I visited Japan for 3 weeks and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I would love to go back. I thought the differences were exciting. If I could ever get a handle on the language I would definitely try living there for an extended time.
posted by McBain at 6:44 AM on December 17, 2002

I could see how the list could be taken as smug (" ask fellow foreigners the all-important question "How long have you been here?" in order to be able to properly categorize them"), but I think that it's also part of culture wearing off. From what I remember of my Japanese culture class, seniority plays a big role. You need to learn someone's social status very quickly when meeting them, so you know how deeply you bow, and how considerate it is acceptable to be.
posted by Be'lal at 6:53 AM on December 17, 2002

Okay, so I am a long term resident my ninth year (with no end in sight) of life amongst the rice fields mentioned above.

If I had one yen for every late night conversation I've had in ex-pat watering holes over the problems of comparing Eastern and Western cultures...I'd be a rich woman. Someone's always criticizing, someone's always defending, someone's always walking the tightrope of diplomacy.

Myself? I vaccilate between being very annoyed by some of the realities expressed in this list and simultaneously feeling very rich indeed that I even have the *opportunity* (as an American, and as a Westerner) to experience all of it...the good, the bad, and the slightly puzzling.

Nylon, that area, Shinsaibashi and neighbouring Amerika-mura are known to be *the* place to get the best Western clothing...we've got similar shops in central Gifu (where I live) but if you were here, I could also take you to the vintage kimono shops and the shops that sell t-shirts with kanji and woodblock prints.

There are no longer places (even out in the country!) where people live by the katana, but there are definitely still places where a person's samurai ancestry is more valuable than gold.

In San Francisco, I know where to get excellent Japanese, Ethiopian food, Malay name it. In Montello, Wisconsin? Not so much...
Rural versus cosmopolitan...that difference exists in every culture.

Basically, what Dantien said.

Hama7...have you lived in Japan as well? I ask only because one of my closest friends here in Gifu taught in Seoul for five years before making the move to Japan and she constantly (years later) talks about how immense the difference was in the ex-pat experience here and there.

I do *absolutely* agree with you on this:

"This is somewhere I must travel to."
"I wouldn't advise it with that attitude, or those silly preconceptions either."

Come for McBain's reasons, or don't come at all...I've got my hands full fighting the stereotypes created by the resident henna gaijin.
And Beat Takeshi's t.v. show? IMHO...even more annoying than those Springer style talk shows with the chair throwing and the "Bitch, I'll show *you* who he's gonna go home with tonight!"

I think it's off the air now, anyway.
posted by squasha at 7:01 AM on December 17, 2002

Squasha (and Hama7 too), how is the ex-pat experience in Korea and Japan different? I'd be really interested to know.

Be'lal, long-termers would ask "how long have you been here?" to work out how familiar you are with things. Acculturation (i.e. culture shock) is a process which goes through certain fairly predictable stages; the honeymoon period, rejection, frustration, making your peace, etc. Three weeks in Japan, one year, three years, ten years, half a century makes a huge difference to the person's mindset.

My own peak of righteous indignation and despair was about eighteen months in. My low point was walking up to the tissue man -- they give out tissues on street corners here -- and saying, "Why the fuck don't you give me one? It's coz I'm a gaijin, isn't it?" "They are for women," he said. "Don't bullshit me." So he gave me a tissue. I looked at it later and saw it was advertising tampons. Oh, the horror.
posted by dydecker at 7:44 AM on December 17, 2002

I've lived in Tokyo for two years, having come here not merely open-minded but something of a Nippophile. That is to say, I came here with a profound respect not merely for the traditional arts - architecture, calligraphy, poetry, flower-arranging, swordmaking, etc. - but also for what I took to be the latter-day efflorescences of the same instincts: Yohji Yamamoto, Masami Teraoka, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Tadao Ando, Reiko Sudo.

I wanted to learn the language, immerse myself in the contradictions, plumb the depths. I wanted this all with humility and the expectation that whatever awaited me would be different than anything I might imagine.

I had no idea how different, though. Two years later, I am crushed: far beyond disappointed by this smug, intolerant, profoundly ignorant, shabby, cloyingly sentimental, preening, self-regarding, and ultimately irrelevant island nation. I'm one of those people you'll find striding down the street here, walking like a New Yorker, talking like a New Yorker, *intervening* like a New Yorker, NOT as an "excuse to be rude" or flaunt my ignorance, but because I have come to a simple value judgment about the relative worth of these actions as compared to those expected of me.

Go ahead, hate me. But for those of you so busy fetishizing Japan: don't simply visit, because you can easily spend a week or two on the ground here and return to Seattle or London with your fantasies intact. No: live here. Try to actually conduct all the operations which attend the practice of everyday life in this environment, and I think you'll be singing a very different song indeed.

Japan does have its laudable points: the streets are safe at all hours of day and night, in whatever neighborhood you might find yourself venturing. Public transit is prompt and punctual. Many people are unfailingly helpful to strangers, to a degree you may well find embarrassing. One can settle utility bills and other such at just about any convenience store.

But on balance, I'd throw all these things over. What you give up simply isn't worth it.

Anything else I can do to debunk the Japan-is-special meme?
posted by adamgreenfield at 7:45 AM on December 17, 2002 think nothing about seeing 20 ads for women's' sanitary napkins during one movie.

During the movie or before the movie? I am confused.
posted by Tystnaden at 7:46 AM on December 17, 2002

dydecker: ROFLMAO!! A great story. classic.

"The nail that sticks up gets hammered down", ne?

For me, asking how long they've been there was generally of an altruistic intent. Knowing how recent someone "stepped off the boat" made it easy for me to know how to help them. Read the restaurant menus for them? Offer to play host? Or leave them be?

squasha: thanks for that comment. I agree that fighting those stereotypes is a full-time job. Even moreso when you return to your native country. The questions I get asked here in the U.S. are as unusual as the ones I was asked in Japan. It's not all peace and love over there. Many a month I found myself going insane from loneliness and frustration. Basically, for me, Japan is different but not better. There is good and bad, yet what is good and what is bad is not the same as here.

The funny thing is the people who feel that the Japanese (or any asian ethnic group) are "more at peace" or "at harmony with nature" or whatnot. I spend alot of time trying to demystify the culture...the last thing anyone needs to do is put another culture on a pedestal. We all have the same hopes, dreams, fears, etc. Only by understanding that we are all the same do we have any hope of dealing with our problems....not just with Japan, but with any country.
posted by Dantien at 7:57 AM on December 17, 2002

I'm with adamgreenfield. I've lived in Japan for 2.5 years, and have actually conducted all the operations which attend the practice of everyday life in this environment as adamgreenfield puts it. I can speak with some authority.

If you're a regular salaryman here, this country sucks.

Sorry to be blasphemous to all you Japonophiles, but that's not only as I see it, try checking out the merry men you travel with on the way to work on the commuter train. Not a single hint of happiness.

Everything's surface here people. Get real. It is. Man, I'd LOVE this place if I was here for 3 weeks. I'd come back to my home country buzzing with how wacky these people appear to be.

Try LIVING here.

Know what tatemae is and know what honne is. Surface and reality.

I laugh at these threads because it's all about the tatamae, the surface. Enjoy it.....but really, the dreary reality awaits those looking for long term life here.

No wonder all these young guys are living hikikimori (reclusive) lifestyles.

It is a hard life if you want to live here, unless you can make a living outside of the mainstream, which is not easy to do.
posted by SpaceCadet at 8:18 AM on December 17, 2002

What struck me was how much of the list could easily apply to Taiwan (where I live) as well. Of course this is partly because because Taiwan was a Japanese colony for about 50 years, but also because:
  • The expatriate experience is similar no matter where you are.
  • A lot of this applies to any industrialized Asian culture (Taiwan, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Seoul, whatever).
There's a similar Taiwan list at this site.
posted by datadawg at 8:35 AM on December 17, 2002

adamgreenfield, I couldn't hate you for your frustrations, but I would beg you to spend some time (actually living) outside of that sprawling metropolis before you damn the whole of the experience.

My husband came here with reasons similar to your own, and he freaked locals out by knowing too much about the history and cultural icons...and this was frustrating to him as well. To this day we have Japanese friends who say he is more Japanese than they are. He did a year and a half as a salary man before he decided that it did indeed suck. Fortunately for him (and unfortunately for the coworkers he left behind...) he had options and went back to teaching at the university level.

dydecker, the main difference cited by Barbara (the friend I mentioned above) was the fact that there was such a national pride, even among the younger Korean, that there was less of the Japanese tendency (yes, we're speaking in generalizations) to embrace the cultural faux pas of foreigners as something "cute" and totally acceptable...nay, expected.

For example, when she dropped her steel chopsticks for the second time in Seoul was, "c'mon, you're an adult, you can see how we hold the eating utensils...what's your friggin' problem?" whereas in Japan the reaction is "'re so skilled to even *try* to eat with these's such a difficult thing...did I mention how skilled you are?" A simplified example, I know. She also has said that there was a hell of a lot less tolerance in Korea for typical henna gaijin behaviour. But as I said before, this is somebody else's experience so I think Hama7 is the MeFi expert on that region.

Teaching conversational English often turns into a comparison of cultures, simply because the students use the fact that you are from some place "outside" their sphere to practice asking questions that they wouldn't normally have an opportunity to ask. "Do people ______ in America?" "Do Americans ____?"....I field these questions daily.

Every educator has their own methodology, but for me, the only way I get through the day is to teach the passive voice: "Many Americans ______." "Some Japanese _______."

I ask them if they think they're behaviour is identical to that of a shiitake farmer in Itadori Town (very rural) and then say my behaviour is different than a woman of my same age working a corporate job in New York City.

And then I focus on the similarities: "Many Americans and many Japanese think Cristina Aguilera's new video is racy."

I've got puchikomori(slightly reclusive) tendencies of my own, but I don't blame that on the tatamae so much as the fact that I don't dig the heavy doses of second-hand smoke in many public places...

My husband used to wear a great shirt to gay pride parades back home in San Francisco..."We are more similar than different." It's as accurate cross-culturally...we just forget, and then there is conflict.
posted by squasha at 8:46 AM on December 17, 2002

I've got mixed feelings about Japan. I haven't lived there at length, but have done a number of business trips over the years. Some aspects of the culture are quite intruiging, others disturbing. I did learn a lot about process and discipline (Japanese companies seem to have a explicit procedure for doing everything - which in some cases is good, but in others goes to absurd extremes). Business itself is conducted (what's the word?) ritualistically. (I'd add, to this post's list, "When you give someone your business card, or accept theirs, with both hands).

I think complaints about the "Americanization" of Japan are somewhat misguided - if Japan has any single strength, it is the fact that they can, and do, adopt virtually anything ... from all sorts of countries. And quite often improve it.

There is also, however, a nasty underside. Attitudes towards women are, from a westerner's perspective, gruesome ("No thank you, Hoshiki-san, I'd prefer not to go upstairs with the "hostess" you've kindly provided, I'd rather simply finish these negotiations"). Blacks are considered an inferior race - and this is not even open to discussion. And there's sort of a complete amorality surrounding the sex trade -that sends large groups of Japanese men to Thailand and a few other places for vacations with young (really young) boys.

It's an interesting place to visit - a rich old culture, some wonderful art, and if you like seafood ... ! ... but I agree with Dantien and SpaceCadet - it's a very good idea not to idolize the Japanese, or put them on some sort of pedestal.
posted by MidasMulligan at 8:49 AM on December 17, 2002

Arrgh! Where did that "they're" come from??? It's obviously "their"...okay, it's 01:48 am here, so I obviously am losing my ability to think (or type) straight. O-yasumi nasai.Night, all.
posted by squasha at 8:50 AM on December 17, 2002

Korea... I think Hama7 is the MeFi expert on that region.

*Switches on the wonderchicken signal, waits*
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 8:54 AM on December 17, 2002

I have lived here for 6 months, and while I can agree that most of what SpaceCadet is saying about tatemae is true, I don't really find it to be particularly onerous. I actually find it kind of nice that people will go out of their way to be polite and lie to you about their feelings. Of course, they are used to everyone seeing through the facade; it is simply the protocol for interpersonal expression here. It can get frustrating if you weren't raised in it and trained how to use it, and I am certainly glad I wasn't, but Japan isn't neither the drab hellhole you describe it as nor the blinking wonderful fantasy land these Japanophile geeks always describe it as. I don't find the people or the lifestyles to be more or less annoying than corresponding quirks in American life. And where else could you see a life-sized chocolate Beckham? There's plently of great stuff here, and plenty of horrible stuff; its just different stuff that is great and horrible.
posted by donkeymon at 8:56 AM on December 17, 2002

Arrgh, again...thank you PinkStainlessTail, that was some serious memory loss on my part...of course, now it's 02:04 am for us here in both Japan and Korea, so who knows if the wonderchicken is up and about.......
posted by squasha at 9:04 AM on December 17, 2002

I believe that the wonderchicken is on holidays back in Canada for a few weeks, and may not be online during this time.
posted by mcwetboy at 11:18 AM on December 17, 2002

No wonder it's been so quiet here.
posted by Dantien at 11:39 AM on December 17, 2002

I visited Japan for a month last August (some pictures here) with a Japanese friend of mine who goes back every year for the Obon festival. It's a very strange place, that's true. But the culture is interesting, and they seem a lot more tolerant of people who a) can't speak the language very well, and b) foreigners. I once had a clerk chase me half a block from her store because she forgot to tie a ribbon on something I bought (The Japanese do seem to have sort of a thing for wrapping stuff). People are extremely polite, much more so than in America. There are some culture shocks, like the henti I saw being sold in vending machines at a subway station in Sannomiya, Kobe.

That being said, I loved the culture. I loved the fact that I could smoke in a bank while 3 very attentive clerks focused all their attention, like a laser beam, on cashing my travlers checks. I liked the fact that you can get a huge bowl of good ramen or soba for 5 bucks on just about any street. I loved watching the awful American movies that were on tv at 3am, dubbed in to Japanese. I love that almost every subway station you visit has some crazy, multi-story shopping center filled with hundreds or thousands of people. Then... there's also Roppongi.

I'm trying to go back next fall on a student exchange program deal, and stay somewhere near Fukuoka, Kyushu. Any one out there that isn't native Japanese, but has learned the language and is living there, have any advise on leaning Japanese (I'm in my 4th semester, and have a basic hold of the language, except for knowing which fucking particles go where)
posted by SweetJesus at 12:29 PM on December 17, 2002

I've never been to Japan, but the movies and books I've read are interesting just because the assumptions are more foreign than those of any other place I've read (or watched) about. The bits of American culture in the mix just add to the bafflement- giving me a sense of familiarity just before the rug is yanked out from under me (again) - but WHY did that just happen? WHY didn't this just happen instead? Chinese movies makes sense to me. Russian movies make sense to me. French movies- well, mostly make sense to me. Japanese- not even close. (Does anyone remember that Bud Dry commercial from way back? Why are foreign movies so... foreign? Why ask why...)

I head someone say once that the Japanese use American culture as a condiment. That they take a lot of stuff from the US but it doesn't affect any core Japanese characteristics. Does anyone who knows more than I do think that's accurate?

Also, what happened to the class structure there? In the movies all you see is the consumerist middle(?) class. What happened to all the untouchables I read about in the old books? Are they touchable yet? Are there still taboos like there were 100 years ago? We only see a weird little bit of Japan in the movies and books. I've been curious for years and don't know anyone to ask.

This is a discombobulated post, but I'm really interested in hearing what people in the know think about these things.
posted by small_ruminant at 1:05 PM on December 17, 2002

You've know you've been in Japan too long when you look at your work visa and realize it expired last month...
posted by anser at 1:29 PM on December 17, 2002

This is somewhere I must travel to.

I wouldn't advise it with that attitude

Oh WOW that must have come out wrong...

The list of funniness is amusing, but it has little to do with my renewed interest in visiting Japan. ("Purpose of visiting Japan?" "Engrish.") A TV show airing opinions of average people -- not as fools, but as equals -- is oddly unimaginable in America, land of the sound bite. That the voices are foreign is even more amazing, not in a rubbernecking way, but in a respectful, even awe inspiring capacity.

It's DIFFERENT. It's a big world, and I've only recently had the opportunity to start exploring some of it. We live at a strange moment in history where it's both technologically feasible and politically viable to travel nearly anywhere in the world. Those who gawk, point fingers, yeah. Wrong attitude.

But what can I say? I like experiencing that wide-eyed gasp of a world I can't entirely comprehend. It means there's so much left to learn :-)

My apologies if my original comment was offensive in any way.

posted by effugas at 2:34 PM on December 17, 2002

Korea... I think Hama7 is the MeFi expert on that region.
*Switches on the wonderchicken signal, waits*

I'm with PinkStainlessTail on that one.

BTW, I haven't been to Japan yet, though I'd like to go, but it seems just based on this thread that it is much less puritanical than Korea. While I find Korean attitudes toward gender to be medieval, I think I'd be even more uncomfortable with Japanese permissiveness.
posted by Octaviuz at 3:51 PM on December 17, 2002

I must say that even after only a few months here, I had to resist the urge to stare at the funny-looking people on the subway. then I'd catch a glimpse of myself reflected in the window and remember that I'm one of the funny-looking people. It's amazing how fast I redefined normal to exclude myself.
posted by Octaviuz at 3:59 PM on December 17, 2002

Japanese attitudes toward sexuality are NOT permissive; they're a splendid, shining example of what Herbert Marcuse called "repressive desublimation".

Contrast the liberty afforded men, as well, with these sincere recommendations to attaining the perfection of Japanese womanhood. Believe it or not, these are not a racist pastiche or a black parody, although it is certainly true that the hold of such attitudes appears to be weakening slightly for women under 25.

In short, every place is fucked up in its own ways, and the task of an adult is to find the home that is fucked up in the ways most congenial to you. I happen to have a low tolerance for gender fascism, so this just isn't the place for me.
posted by adamgreenfield at 5:09 PM on December 17, 2002

I actually find it kind of nice that people will go out of their way to be polite and lie to you about their feelings.

That's where you and I differ. It's so nice to be in a polite society for the first few months.....but it kind of grates after a while....anyway, my point was not so much about the politeness factor.....more the fact that tatamae is used universally here, not just as a technique to force politeness.

After all this time in Japan, still it's hard to know people's true intentions. I'd rather get to the point.

Maybe I haven't mastered the art of Zen or something, any tips in the Lonely Planet guide?
posted by SpaceCadet at 5:20 PM on December 17, 2002

Here's my answer...find like-minded individuals to spend your time with.

For years I tolerated acquaintances that I would never have been friends with in my home country, simply because we were sharing the ex-pat experience. Now, I have a core group of truly close friends (some Japanese, some gaijin) whom I feel have become my family.

That said...if there are so many of us here (or wanting to be here) how is it we haven't had a MeFi meet-up yet?

Or did I miss it?

One more question (now that it's morning and my head is clear) ...wait a minute, isn't theartistformerlyknownaswonderchicken in Hong Kong when he's not in Canada? I'm so confused...
posted by squasha at 6:25 PM on December 17, 2002

Now that, I could get behind. I'm in Ebisu.
posted by adamgreenfield at 6:44 PM on December 17, 2002

Writer Justin Hall's is one of the best long-running weblogs. He just happens to write about technology and being an American in Japan.
posted by yonderboy at 6:58 PM on December 17, 2002

There are MeFi Meetup supposedly happening every once in a while, but no one here ever goes to vote on a location so they always get cancelled. So go sign up and we can all meet in person. Or we can just arrange it directly.

BTW Justin Hall also wrote a pretty good book about visiting Tokyo, if anyone is planning on visiting and you want a little more of the straight dope on hanging out here. You can buy a PDF for like 6 or 7 bucks I think. I used it the first time I came here for a visit and it was useful, informative, and amusing.
posted by donkeymon at 7:27 PM on December 17, 2002

small_ruminant, the Japanese has a class structure but it is different from the West: it is fixed. It shocks me when I go back to the West and see people use little slights and snubs and putting people in their place. We jostle for status (even on these boards!). In the West the woman at the supermarket might go out of her way to make you feel small.

Your status to a Japanese is defined not by how witty or clever you are, or your personal identity, but by your role. You are either in his group or not, and either as above or below him in the group heirarchy. So the supermarket woman will treat you exactly like a customer, nothing more, nothing less. And the guy in your company who splits the atom or becomes Time's man of the year, if he started work there a year before you, he is lower status forever! (except when you get drunk). It's a derived from the old fuedal society; a farmer was a farmer for life.

This system is also reflected in the language.

(Oh, I'm in for a meetup, too. I'm in Setagaya-ku.)
posted by dydecker at 7:55 PM on December 17, 2002

Oh, BTW, information architect Adam Greenfield's site v-2 also happens to talk about technology and being an American in Japan.

Funny how that works, huh?
posted by adamgreenfield at 8:41 PM on December 17, 2002

I went to college in Nagoya for a while, and I'm going back in another two weeks to do my research for my Japanese thesis (it's on the portrayal of westerners in Japanese literature and pop culture). My experience was probably very different from anyone who's ever worked there, but I felt mostly comfortable living in Japan. However, it took me a while to get used to being stared at in public (it's twice as bad if you decide to travel to a rural area) or the way old ladies say "hello, hello" to you when you pass them in the street.

I was kind of disappointed to see a lot of entries to the tune of "...the presence of another foreigner breaks the wa, although for some reason your presence doesn't." I guess to some people it's like having a great designer watch and then seeing someone else with the same one. So you don't get to be the single exotic person on the train; it means that the crazy people will talk to someone else for a while. Please tell me that I'm not the only westerner who attracts crazy and/or drunk people in public places.
posted by Alison at 10:03 PM on December 17, 2002

If you've never been to Japan and are interested in coming here, please ignore *everything* anyone says about Japan and just do it.

Superficially Japan is a unique country but deep down she is not much different from any other.

As Mrs. Quasha wisely pointed out:
"We are more similar than different."

The rules here are the same:

If you come here seeking beauty or knowledge, you will find an abundance.

If you come here seeking things to criticize or complain about, you will find those, too.

If you come here striving to add something to the lives of the people around you, in the long term you will prosper, gain respect and have a pleasant experience.

If you come here hoping to gain something but have no intention of adding anything to the lives of the people around you, in the long term you will probably leave Japan poor, not highly respected, bitter and will blame Japan, her culture or her people for your unhappiness.

Your experience will ultimately depend on your attitude.

This applies to any country and Japan is no different.

As for me, Japan has enriched my life immeasurably but so has every other country I have had the pleasure and opportunity to live in.

If you are interested in Japan and have the means to come here, ignore whatever anyone says (including me) and just do it.

If you are already here, please try to make the best of your experience. Even though we all face challenges at times, most of the people on our planet will never have the opportunity to leave the city, town or village in which they were born. We have the opportunity to live, love and learn in another culture. Let's enjoy this opportunity... and earn it. :)

posted by cup at 1:51 AM on December 18, 2002

If there is anybody still reading this thread, please accept my apologies for inexcusable negligence. My time has been scarcely my own lately because of end-of year-parties and the like, not that it's fabulously interesting, but rather a smiling-while-gritting-one's-teeth obligation.

Dantien: I apologise for my tone, and please understand that it was not personal, but I feel some obligation to take up for the respectable majority of nice foreign Americans, and not drag everybody down with the 'bad apple' stereotype. But I agree that some jerks do spoil things royally, and not just ugly Americans, but Aussies, English, Spaniards, et cetera. That's why I prefer to dwell on the superior examples.

squasha: Hama7...have you lived in Japan as well? I ask only because one of my closest friends here in Gifu taught in Seoul for five years before making the move to Japan and she constantly (years later) talks about how immense the difference was in the ex-pat experience here and there.

Yes. I'm sorry I don't have the time to go into detail at the moment, drop me a line if you have time.

Octaviuz: I haven't been to Japan yet, though I'd like to go, but it seems just based on this thread that it is much less puritanical than Korea. While I find Korean attitudes toward gender to be medieval, I think I'd be even more uncomfortable with Japanese permissiveness.

Octaviuz, you have stated it beautifully.
posted by hama7 at 7:08 AM on December 18, 2002

Hama7, I only complained about ex-pats in that way because even in my rural prefecture (Iwate), there were quite a few of those guys (always guys) who never made a point of learning Nihongo, always made for difficult and embarrassing incidents in public due to their behavior, and enjoyed racking up as many japanese paramours as possible. These guys totally took advantage of Japan's hospitality and made the rest of us look horrible. I'm still suffering from that image...

No, not all ex-pats are bad. Most are wonderful (some i'd love to locate...where are you Joel Krentz?). But as they say, a bad apple....
posted by Dantien at 8:23 AM on December 18, 2002

cup -

What a bunch of naive, sentimental nonsense that is. I find your thesis offensive, primarily in its strong implication that those of us who leave Japan embittered came with a plundering greed in our hearts.

I have news for you, buddy: some folks did sincerely "come here striving to add something to the lives of the people around" us, and did so with patience, humility, a sense of scale and a sense of humor - and were STILL rebuffed by a system set up to exclude messages (and messengers) it finds untenable.

I personally leave Japan having made a great deal of money, a very few lifelong friends, some experiences I shall treasure, and a strong dislike for this culture and the individuals and institutions which support and maintain it in its present state. That doesn't fit into your pat little "what goes around, comes around" scenario, much, does it?
posted by adamgreenfield at 5:13 PM on December 18, 2002

cup, if only that were true.
posted by SpaceCadet at 12:54 AM on December 19, 2002

Dear Mr. Greenfield,

I am truly sorry that you feel that way.

The post was intended to set facts straight so that people interested in visiting Japan could come here with an open heart and mind.

It was also intended as a reminder to all of us here now that we should add more than we take and appreciate what we receive. Our service to others is the rent we pay. If our presence here benefits the people and the culture, we will be happier in the long run and future visitors will have a much better experience than we did.

As we both know, there are individuals and institutions in Japan that are holding Japan back from her true potential and threaten to drag her culture back into darker ages. Such individuals and institutions are not unique to Japan and are not a good reason to disparage a nation or her people.

Personally, it is my intention to do whatever I can to dismantle these institutions and change things for the better. I sincerely hope that you will do the same in whatever country you choose to reside in next.

Unlike you, I will not leave Japan with a great deal of money. Ultimately, my bones will be buried here. My future and Japan's future are one.

That is why I felt it important for visitors to come here with an open mind and for those of us here to take a moment from their busy lives to constructively look inside instead of seeking blame outside.

If my post offended you, please accept my apologies for that was not my intention. We are both strangers here and offending one another will do nothing to improve our lives nor the nation in which we reside.

posted by cup at 3:40 AM on December 19, 2002

I personally leave Japan having made a great deal of money, a very few lifelong friends, some experiences I shall treasure, and a strong dislike for this culture and the individuals and institutions which support and maintain it in its present state.

That is exactly the sentiment that many a foreign soul comes from Japan feeling, myself included. (except for the money part, in my case)

I do miss the language, the photogenic temples and punctual trains, though.
posted by hama7 at 3:47 AM on December 19, 2002

a man called a.a.gil travelled to japan last year. i wish i could link the article, but the sunday times archives are locked & weighted, so i can only paste from my psion:

"An English banker who has lived there for over a decade, speaks the language, married a Japanese girl and takes his shoes off in his own home, told me: 'You have no idea how much, how deeply, they despise us. Don't be fooled by the politeness: it's mockery. They are very good at passive aggression; it's the only type they're allowed.'

He went on: 'You must have noticed they're obsessed with perfection: a perfect blossom, an ideally harmonious landscape. They can't abide a chipped cup. We're imperfect, coarse, smelly, loud.' Japan has taken the worst of the West and discarded the best. So it has a democracy without individualism. It has freedom of speech but is too frightened to say anything. It makes without creating. And, saddest and most telling, it has emotion without love. You never feel love here. They have obsession, yearning and cold observation - even beauty and devotion - but nothing is done or said with the spontaneous exuberance of love, and I have never been anywhere else in the whole wide world where you could say that."

now, a.a.gil may be upside down about many things, but i feel in my bones that he stole a truth for that bloody article: you never feel love here. for me, before japan there was barcelona & great screamed passions for life & art & even a dying houseplant. you've been in japan too long when you yearn for 'the spontaneous exuberance of love'.
posted by n o i s e s at 12:13 PM on December 20, 2002

It always amazes me how some people come to Japan, live for 6 months, three years or ten years only to declare themselves an "expert" or an "authority" on the culture.

It is undoubtedly these people who tend to have the most jaded view of Japan, shallow understanding of her people and who seem to do the most bashing.

Whatever the banker opined is just that - his own opinion based on his experiences and nothing more. His experiences will be influenced by his occupation, the people around him, the neighborhood in which he lives, the woman he married, her family, his understanding of the culture, his willingness to learn, his flexibility and his ability to thrive in unfamiliar surroundings. Ultimately it depends on his attitude because attitude will largely determine all of the above.

As for love, although she wears a different dress in different countries, she is most definitely here. The banker may not have had the ability or the luxury (in terms of time or emotions) to recognize her. This banker should look deeper. He should also understand that love takes many forms and that it is difficult to find love if one does not truly love.

If the crowd he is running with is devoid of love then perhaps it is time to find new friends. Like attracts like so a change his attitude is the first step. As long as he blames his surroundings for his lack of love or happiness, he will find neither here in Japan or elsewhere.

I sincerely hope this banker finds the love that he seeks.

posted by cup at 10:45 PM on December 20, 2002

cup, what is it with this bizarre, retrograde "her people" and "she wears a different dress"?

And for that matter, whoever among the people posting here (or referenced) claimed the mantle of expert or authority? All I see is people reporting on their own experiences, with some patterns beginning to emerge.

I have no wish to get into a petit/petty flamefest with you, but surely you must recognize how presumptuous is your comment regarding "the crowd he is running with" being "devoid of love;" I see nothing to substantiate that assumption whatsoever.

I guess I have to ask you what your agenda is, since you seem so hellbent on impugning the integrity of those who have expressed doubts about Japanese culture. Why are you so intent on portraying this as a problem that vests in the people rather than in the place they're confronting?
posted by adamgreenfield at 1:46 AM on December 21, 2002

Dear Mr. Greenfield,

Please read the comments on this thread.

It is the banker who said that Japan is devoid of love, not me. Everyone living a normal and fruitful life in Japan is well aware that love certainly exists here. To suggest otherwise borders on psychosis. I had to assume that either there is something wrong with him or with the people he associates with and replied accordingly. Please note my usage of the word "if" at the beginning of my statement regarding his associates.

You said that you didn't want to get into a petty flamefest.

Mr. Greenfield, you referred to Japan as:

"smug, intolerant, profoundly ignorant, shabby, cloyingly sentimental, preening, self-regarding, and ultimately irrelevant island nation"

You also said:

"I happen to have a low tolerance for gender fascism, so this just isn't the place for me."

Mr. Greenfield, if anyone is chomping at the bit for a petty flamefest it certainly is not me. Unfortunately, the metafilter community is not the place for flamefests and you can't catch big fish with small bait.

As for my "agenda" as you call it, this is perfectly clear in an earlier post.

Let's move on, Mr. Greenfield. We both have better things to do, the kind readers of this forum derive no benefit from this and we're talking on someone else's dime here.

posted by cup at 10:17 AM on December 21, 2002

Uh, whatever, dude.

And quit calling me "Mr. Greenfield." That's my dad.
posted by adamgreenfield at 8:15 PM on December 21, 2002

Why are you so intent on portraying this as a problem that vests in the people rather than in the place they're confronting?

It is illogical for the banker to blame his lack of love on his surroundings. Love exists between people regardless of where they are.

I would guess his presumption that Japanese lack love is a misinterpretation of the fact that they keep displays of affection out of the private eye.
posted by dydecker at 9:12 PM on December 21, 2002

Thank you, dydecker.

You have eloquently expressed in three sentences what I could not explain to Mr. Greenfield in several posts.

Enjoy the long weekend. :)

posted by cup at 10:57 PM on December 21, 2002

you've been in japan too long when you yearn for 'the spontaneous exuberance of love'.

I don't think Japan is necessarily alone in that regard in Eastern culture, though the cultural differences can be misleading. But in my experience, I believe the essence of your comments (or your aquaintance's) are accurate, n o i s e s.

Even Japanese students who have travelled abroad have made similar remarks such as: "when I look at a western house at night I feel warmth, and when I look at a Japanese house I feel cold". That may be misquoted, but I remember feeling a definite and profound lack of emotional atmosphere, but I chalked it up to 'culture', and my inexperience, which it may have been. My outlook changed a bit when I mentioned my feelings to Koreans with experience in Japan, who felt exactly the same way, and the two countries have had thousands more years experience than I.

I don't think it's enough to say:

"they keep displays of affection out of the private eye" (did you mean "public eye"??), although that's a cultural part of it, but it's not necessarily because of confucian propriety, or mannered tradition, and neglects the throngs of love-hotel goers, porn vending machines and public displayers of intimacy.

In any case, there are many questions which will go unanswered, making this topic all the more interesting.
posted by hama7 at 2:43 AM on December 22, 2002

Wow, dydecker, you and Mr. cup only read what you want to read. The English banker complained nowhere about a lack of love in his own personal life, though you both seem to wish it so.

He said - thrice paraphrased - "you never feel love here," which is something that apparently rings true for many of us actually on the ground here. He's further careful to distinguish and define what he means by "love."

I really, really wonder why you're trying so hard to "refute" and invalidate the self-reported experiences of those of us who dislike Japan for one reason or another. Please have the respect to accord us the integrity of our own perceptions, and not ascribe it to some notional ethnocentrism, ignorance, arrogance, intolerance or self-centeredness.

Hold tight to your own fondness or gratitude to this place if you will, as that is your right. I would ask you to accept, however, not merely the fact that not everyone has similar feelings about Japan, but that for the most part those who do have negative feelings came by them honestly.
posted by adamgreenfield at 9:01 AM on December 22, 2002

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