Maybe it’s needless to mention, but I fell in love with Japan the moment I landed here. From my perspective, anything that was related to Japan was perfect. The old culture is fascinating, the flora and fauna live in divine harmony, the people of this country are friendly and honest… surely there’s no way this place has even one negative aspect!
Or was I wrong? Just like a child acknowledging that Santa Claus isn’t real, my love story with Japan started to crack. It happened gradually, and overall there was no significant trauma or a tremendous crisis, but time after time I found myself questioning my perception of this country.
Could it possibly be that Japan has a few negative sides – not to say – dark sides? Maybe it’s only me that understands it all wrong?
“An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered”, a quote I found pinned on Pinterest. And honestly, I believe so. I’ve already learned that every difficulty should be considered a challenge – it makes life a lot easier to cope with. No matter how you look at it, there’s nothing sexy about complaining all the time.
Indeed, Japan has its pros and cons, just like anywhere else in the world. Keeping that in mind, I usually try to see the glass half full. But sometimes – there’s no other way – I have to tell the truth. And so – could it be fruitful or effective to tell the truth when it means focusing on the not-so-good aspects of something? Well, I guess we’ll have to examine that in this post!
I could call this post “what I hate about Japan”, but it would have been a deceptive click-bait and nothing more. I obviously don’t hate Japan. BUT I have an urge to complain a little, and therefore – I wrote the following list of:
My biggest challenges in Japan
1. English (Ingurishu)
Japan is economically and technologically one of the most advanced countries in the world. As such, you would expect it to have a high percentage of English speakers.
Think again… The percentage of English speakers is quite low.
Therefore, when you go to a hotel lobby and start to ask the person at the desk difficult questions – don’t be surprised if they simply can’t understand you. The same is true for taxi drivers, train station employees, policemen, or any person in the street that you stop to ask “where is the…?”. You might, indeed, be pleasantly surprised and the person can understand and speak English, but I wouldn’t count on it.
It is, however, a great way to learn the language – you simply have to. And still, after so many years of learning Japanese, I will come to ask a shop owner, in perfect Japanese: “how much is this?”, and many times they’ll reply: “one handoredo yen”. Well, I guess everyone wants to practice a new language…
2. The Japanese are always so official
Growing up in Israel, everything was… very Mediterranean. In other words, nothing was official and everything was very easy going. When I needed something from my faculty’s office, I would just come, knock on the door (which was always open anyway), and start a small-talk with the secretary. After she told me about her kids and I shared with her the latest gossip – we would talk about the thing I actually came for. Everything was so casual.
In contrast, when I need something from the office in my Japanese university, it looks like this: Standing in front of the window until someone notices me. Everyone in the office is working in front of their computers with a serious look on their faces. When noticing me, they look at each other (all the people in the office). Via unexplainable telepathy, they understand who will be the one to approach me. Open the window. Ask what I need in a very official manner. I explain what I need… in an equally official manner. I understand, they say. Please let your sensei sign this document. Thank you. Window closed.
I do want to make one thing clear: they’re not being rude. It’s just the way they do things. So bloody official.
But it’s not just the university office. Everything in Japan is official! Every “hello” has to be said in a certain way (unless you want to insult someone – and trust me – you don’t!). But… I am from Israel! What happened to smiling at each other, sticking your nose in someone’s personal life, telling shaggy-dog stories, and having noticeable moods?
Sorry, in Japan you’ll have to take yourself seriously. Dull!
3. Taking off your shoes everywhere
If you come to my house in Kyoto, you’ll be kindly asked to abandon your beloved shoes at the dark, cold entrance. That’s just how it is in Japan. I have to admit this habit makes sense – it tremendously reduces the dirt in the house.
But if you happen to wear shoes with laces… let’s just say it will take you a little longer to take them on and off.
While it’s perfectly normal to take off your shoes in someone else’s house in many countries, when it comes to other places – it’s a pain! In Japan, many temples, museums, and restaurants will also require this. It’s particularly embarrassing when I leave a restaurant and the poor waitress has to wait there until I find, put on, and fasten my shoes. Knowing she’s standing there waiting for me only makes me clumsy, and then it all takes even longer.
When taking off your shoes in temples – say goodbye to the sensation in your feet. Cold wooden floors in winter are freezing. So here’s a tip from me: always put an extra pair of socks in your bag. You can thank me later!
4. Eating/drinking as much as you can (Nomihodai/ Tabehodai)
I don’t know what it’s like in your country – but in Japan it’s no less than a tradition. At the beginning and end of every period – be it work or school – everyone gathers to celebrate. From seniors to juniors, everyone usually meets in a local izakaya, and goes wild! Students, professors, the CEO – all take an active part in this feast.
What starts as an informal friendly dinner ends up looking like high school buddies trying to stretch out their livers to the maximum. Drinking until you lose the ability to phrase a comprehensive sentence is completely normal.
Sounds like fun? There are a few issues I have with it:
Firstly, I don’t really find myself in these settings. Although it’s acceptable and encouraged to drink a lot, I think this phase of my life ended somewhere around 2005…
The second issue is the over-eating and over-drinking culture. It doesn’t resonate with my lifestyle and beliefs. Oh – and that’s even before I said anything about vegan food. The next section will be dedicated to that.
Another problem is the price of these meetings. I could easily eat five or more decent meals for the price of one meeting; 4,000~5,000 yen is the minimum cost, but it could also reach around 10,000 yen.
Indeed, in Japan, individuals are expected to adjust to the collective, but it just feels wrong to me. Whoever started this dubious tradition should learn one or two things about balance in life.
5. Veganism in Japan
I’m not one of those who wants to preach veganism to others. My purpose here is not to complain about the fact that there are almost no vegans in Japan. However, I do want to eat food that contains no animal products. And in Japan – being picky about food can often become a huge problem.
It all starts with the fact that the awareness of veganism is small. Very small. The average Japanese person on the street probably won’t know what vegan means. It’s so esoteric that none of the Japanese vegan-restaurant owners I know are even vegan themselves.
Therefore, you cannot really expect anyone to understand your diet unless you explicitly explain. And even then – there might be a misunderstanding like I had on this occasion:
I was invited to a Japanese acquaintance’s house for dinner. Everyone made something and our Japanese host also made a few dishes, one of them was tofu. She was telling me: “Oh Lilia, you can eat the tofu! I think it’s vegan”. I was so happy to hear this. But immediately after telling me this, she was spreading mini-dried shrimps all over the tofu. I told her politely that I will not eat it because, well, shrimp is an animal and I refrain from eating animals. Her reply was: “Even the small ones you don’t eat?!”
6. Lack of sarcasm
Let’s be honest: sarcastic jokes are the funniest jokes. Actually, my whole humor is based on sarcasm. And it’s not only me: my friends from Europe, Australia, North, Middle, and South America – all LOVE sarcastic jokes. But in Japan it is not quite as popular.
There’s been a few times that I tried to tell a cynical joke to my Japanese friends. Their reaction was an embarrassed smile at best, or a look on their faces saying “I don’t get it” or “what’s the point?” at worst.
Therefore (and without giving any embarrassing examples), I just stopped with this type of humor. In Japan I might not be funny, and that’s totally okay!
7. Drip coffee
If you walk into a Japanese café or restaurant and ask for coffee – you’ll probably get drip coffee. It’s essentially filtered coffee. Why is that a challenge for me? It’s just because in Israel coffee will always be espresso-based. Espresso, macchiato, Americano, and cappuccino – all are espresso-based. I’m not one of those picky people who has a million instructions (make it hot, strong, skinny milk, no foam, etc…) but I do like my coffee espresso-based.
Drip coffee is nice, but it’s just not the real thing. My Italian friend once phrased what drip coffee is to her: “it’s a drink that tastes like coffee”. I couldn’t agree more.
There are brands like Starbucks and Tully’s that have espresso-based coffee, and some local cafés, but most other places won’t have that miraculous thing called an espresso machine. It does, however, give me an idea for a future post: delicious cappuccinos in Kyoto. Would you be interested in that?
8. Falling asleep EVERYWHERE
We can all relate to feeling a bit sleepy in the middle of the day – especially after lunch. As much as we would love to lean our heads for a while, there are suitable times and places to do so. A suitable place would be: on your office desk, in your car, on the sofa, and likewise places. Unsuitable places would be: a business meeting, in the middle of class, if you’re a professor – in the middle of your own class, especially if some of your students are presenting and you need to grade them. Seems obvious, right? Not in Japan!
It often seems like the Japanese can fall asleep literally anywhere. I will never forget the time when I came to a class and one of the Japanese students came with the most necessary accessory when you sit in the front row: a pillow (if you didn’t get the point, go back to section 6). In this class, the most astonishing thing was – that the professor couldn’t care less! It was as if it was completely normal – or maybe it was?
I actually got a chance to ask this professor about the falling-asleep-thing. She said that it is better to come to class and fall asleep than to not show up at all. It is better to be present – even when you’re not conscious. Sometimes it could even be associated with fatigue from hard work – and will be appreciated. Falling asleep might make you look good – so no wonder it is so common everywhere!
I am absolutely certain that any Japanese person who reads this post will be able to think of at least 56,987,001 challenges they face when dealing with different cultures. It is completely normal. Every place on the planet has its own unwritten rules and habits which outsiders must accept. Here I am, focusing on the challenges that I face in Japan. It’s not negative nor positive – it’s just the way things are. Sometimes it’s annoying, and sometimes I can’t stop myself from laughing.
Still, all the sections above are nothing compared to the countless amazing things about this country. Japanese people are so kind and polite, government and municipal offices work immaculately, the post system is super reliable and convenient, there’s almost no crime in the streets, public transportation works flawlessly, it’s super clean everywhere (even public toilets), Japanese sweets (wagashi) are incredibly delicious, and the aesthetics are impeccable.
There’s no doubt, every country has many faces, and so does Japan. I deeply hope that you’ll get to see all the beautiful faces of the land of the rising sun when you come to visit 😃.
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