Dear foreign* person,
(*When I say “foreigners,” I mean mostly people who grew up in North America, because I cannot speak for the world (sorry, world). I would like to know what other people’s opinions are on the subject though!)
Is this your first time being foreign? Because if it is, you are in for an experience. If it isn’t, maybe you are in for a different sort of experience.
First of all, welcome to Japan! I came here about 5 years ago with nothing but an email saying I had a job, a suitcase, maybe 500 dollars and a dream.
I am writing this because there are things that I wish I could have told myself 5 years ago. Maybe they will be useful for the people out there just starting out in Japan …
The theme is “getting along with people.”
Listen to people (or at least pretend to):
You might notice that when people are listening to a story they will be randomly very vocal…But not actually be making any words.
Listen to a Japanese TV show and it might really start to annoy you. People are just trying their hardest to be polite and show that they are actively listening to what you have to say. It is called “aizuchi.”
Sample conversation with aizuchi:
So you know Mari?
Ee. (sounds like “eh-.” This is like “yeah” )
Yeah, so she actually is from Hokkaido.
Ho. (Like a “hoe.” It’s a bit like “Oh, I see”)
Did you know her parents are rich?
Heeeeee- (this is a tricky one. It mostly is used for mild surprise. Say a really long “hey” with a rising inflection. The longer your “hey” is the more impressed/surprised you sound)
They are the 5th wealthiest family there.
EEEEEEEEEEEEE–?! (Sounds like a super long “eh.” This is for something really unbelievable. It’s like “heee-”)
***Most aizuchi are just vowel sounds. But you can also use words if you’d like. If you want to sound like a Japanese school girl you can say “Maji?!” after everything ( “no way!!”).
Be silent when in motion:
On elevators, in trains, on buses, you might realize that there is a prevailing silence. No phone calls, no loud conversations, no merrymaking on the transit.
Disturb the peace and risk having a random man or woman glare at you. That is the extent that they will do. Glare and maybe talk about you in Japanese.
Gifts, gifts, gifts:
When you hand a gift over it is often customary to say “tsumaranai mono desu ga…”
Which literally translates to, “This is something boring, but…” (It is to be humble, but to this day it sounds funny to me).
When should I give a gift?
-When you return from vacation and you went somewhere (give to coworkers/classmates)
-When someone you know has a baby, a wedding, a birthday, a death in the family…etc. (be careful because for weddings and deaths they usually want money in fancy envelope)
- When it is mid-summer, or when it is the end of the year (you can give something to anyone who you feel indebted to)
- When someone got you something for V-day (get something better for them for 3/14)
For more information on gift-giving in Japan and what to give/not give look here.
Mind your degrees of bowing:
This probably is not so important if you are just in Japan for a short while, but bowing is paramount. If you want to do it correctly though, you do need to move your upper body.
The chart above shows “a shallow bow,” a “regular bow” and a “deep bow.”
When to use a shallow bow:
Ideally when you pass someone you should do this mini-bow at them. Especially if they are older than you.
When to use a normal bow:
For normal business situations. When you thank someone, say goodbye to someone, introduce yourself to someone…the list goes on. You better get used to the 30 degree life-style!
When to use a deep bow:
In short, when there is a lot riding on your bow. You might need it for apologizing, extreme thanks, when you are asking for a huge favor, or you are taking part of some ceremony (like a funeral, wedding, etc.)
What is this guy doing?
Dogeza, the “ultimate bow,” it is supposed to be the ultimate humble expression of “I royally f*ed up” or it could mean, “I have the utmost respect for you and worship the ground you walk upon.”
Communicate more than you need to:
Japanese is a highly contextualized language (This was the mantra of my college Japanese teacher). It is true, it is easy to miss subtext if you don’t know you are supposed to be actively looking for it.
One way to combat this that I find super effective is to just over-communicate your intentions. It sounds excessive and annoying, but if you leave things up to interpretation it can get messy REAL quick.
What you think is obvious may not actually be that obvious.
Always double-check if you are uncertain!
Different does not mean better:
People are going to treat you differently. People generally expect less of Westerners in particular. They might not expect you to know customs, to give gifts when it is appropriate, to greet people or bow at the right times.
This doesn’t mean you can forget what common decency and politeness are. Try to be polite in the ways you know how. Try to mimic the Japanese people around you.
Just try. Try and you will be appreciated for it.
It seems weird to have to say that, but I have witnessed some people play their “foreigner card” to death. Many times to try to play at being completely ignorant of what is acceptable behavior.
Foreigner card example: Don’t have enough money and pretending to not know any Japanese to try to walk away without paying.
Foreigner card example: Sitting in the “Priority Seat” of the train while knowing it is for old people and children.
Maybe these things are all common sense, but I hope that you guys learned something from them.
If you think I forgot anything, please tell me. I am not the end-all be-all authority. I have just been in this country for too long.