An extremely opinionated list of things I love about life in Japan based on other places I’ve lived (Hong Kong and London) as a Chinese Canadian…in recent years, as a “digital nomad” too. How Japan’s particular and alien customs become the warmest habits to fall back to.
All photos are taken by yours truly.
Yoroshikuonegaishimasu is an indispensable phrase. When meeting, it means “please be kind to me”. Before working together, or even addressing a customer, it also means thank you for your cooperation. It can even be built into a new year’s greeting: Please be kind to me again this year — Kotoshi mo yoroshikuonegaishimasu.
Sumimasen is far more useful than thank you. You apologise or excuse yourself for getting attention, for bumping into someone, for receiving a gift, for going first, for taking a seat, before smushing into someone in the exploding rush-hour train — for just about everything. My brain came hardwired with an awareness of imposition, even before I learned Japanese. When I finally did, I felt like I finally could verbalise an integral part of myself to people who would acknowledge it in just the right way: with a slight nod back.
Perhaps I am particularly endeared to this expression because it is also a Chinese one. Shitsurei in kanji is 失礼, literally to have lost proper ettiquette (i.e. do a discourtesy). In Chinese, the expression is a polite response to a compliment, as humility is the mark of good breeding. The Japanese, however, acknowledge losing decorum over everything: leaving early, signing off a Skype call, entering a room or house, before starting a service or doing anything seen as intrusive. Psychoanalysing the two cultures through their interpretations of the same root characters is an endless source of fascination. But even that aside, I appreciate how, to the Japanese, shitsurei is the acknowledgment of passing that invisible border into someone else’s space, time, and patience.
Bow. Keep bowing. Bow and back away. Preferably, be the last one bowing. That is, of course, taken to business extremes. But more casually, it is a polite but unintrusive way of acknowledging someone: as a thank-you, greeting, or apology. I bow if someone makes way for me on the subway. I also bow when indicating to an elderly lady to take my seat. I reflexively bow everywhere, to everyone – the bus that slowed down for me at the intersection even though I have right of way — and it’s a habit I don’t really want to give up.
‘I humbly receive’ is what this expression means. It is reverent, but without religious connotations, a small gesture of gratitude just before diving into the meal. It is also used when receiving a treat, even a vending machine drink from a stranger.
At the end of a meal, clap your hands together and say Gochisousama before excusing yourself from the table. ‘It was a feast.’ And so it was. So every meal I receive is. So I still say it, wherever I am in this wide world.
It’s in the small things. Lifting your cup with two hands. Folding your coat inside out when you enter someone else’s house so as not to have the dirty exterior affect their home. They come most extreme when taking care of every last thing when hosting you. But they are also simple things like keeping a conversational tone down. Really, manners are just that extra thought that goes into considering others.
Big cars, especially waste collection ones, have warning announcements on their loudspeakers before they turn. Bus drivers will also pause and make an announcement before turning. It is such a considerate an endearing touch that makes me forget the rest of the world isn’t this way.
I really hope I’m not that foreigner who inspires a bunch of burglaries once this secret (common knowledge) is let out. I love how I can leave the door unlocked here, and how I’ve been told by homeowners to just “let myself in”. I love how I don’t worry about my unlocked bike for 3 days, or my bag left on the street.
The clatter of shoes at train stations
Whether at Tokyo Station or Shinjuku Station (Tokyo’s busiest, with over 2 million transiting people a day), the dominant rhythm is the clatter of heels. This sound indicates the relative absence of another: talking. Japan is a quiet country, even in the big city. People generally talk in more hushed voices. People refrain from talking on the trains lest they get death glares.
The morning cycling commute
During morning rush hour, suits and uniforms around the neighbourhood will cruise their way towards the nearest subway / train station. This gentle stream of traffic makes the otherwise drab residential blocks come alive in their own quiet way.
The internet is strewn with victims of Japanese fastidiousness about punctuality: those made to copy 200 lines promising to be on time, writing apology essays, made to do chores, etc. In fact, trains issue special tickets certifying that you were indeed late for xx minutes [because someone jumped the tracks] to submit to your HR department.
15 minutes early is punctual in Japanese time. One shows up to work 30 minutes early in order to be ready by the hour. One takes 5 trains earlier in order to factor in getting-lost time. Trains leave on the dot. The result? Things mostly run on time. Honestly, I love it.
Respect for Work and Tired People
Japan’s no different from most Asian countries in its overworked hours. In their own culturally unique ways, Hong Kong, Korea, and Japan can fight for top status in hours clocked. The way to greet someone leaving the office is otsukaresama deshita (You’re tired) with implications of respect (sama). In fact, otsukaresama can be used when someone has completed a task and other scenarios.
The cousin to shouganai (it can’t be helped), all one can do is gaman! (suck it up, clench one’s teeth and get through it). Of course, both have problems. But my sister summed it up with the emphatic fist pump and extended neck – effort! – Gaman! You’ll get through it. I really appreciate this tenacity.
Kodawari / Obsessions
A friend described Japan like an autistic savant. People do one thing well and systems do one thing well. Throw a needle in it, and the entire thing will go haywire. Processes can’t be tweaked. Accommodations can’t be made. But, boy, do they get what they’re obsessed about right – from a replication of Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City to American jeans.
Souvenir doesn’t completely cover the word omiyage, which specifically refers to a specialty of the area one is travelling to (usually food-related) that is brought back home to family, friends, and colleagues. Some see it as a burden, but since it’s a wonderful excuse for me to check out regional food and share with others.
In Japan, it’s rude to tip. The understanding is that the service you were given was included in the price that you paid. To tip means someone has not done their job as a server.
Greetings and Expressions
There are words for every occasion. Irasshaimase is said when you enter a restaurant or shop. Ittekimasu is said before leaving the house, and reciprocated with itterashai. Tadaima is said when you return, and welcomed with okaeri. Another one is omataseishimashita, “I’ve kept you waiting.”
Things found better than you left them
One of my guests once left their umbrella outside the subway station and returned at the end of the day to see that it was neatly hung right around the side.
Don’t say goodbye.
Sayonara, the word most people know, is rarely said in Japanese. It is either formal, said officially in school to a teacher, or has a finality that means you’ll never see someone again. Instead, people say matta [insert time frame], which means until [insert time].
And if you don’t know when the next time will be, like me?
Matta zehi. See you again, for sure.
Over to you! What do you love about Japan? What are some things you miss?
If you liked this post check out my other 100+ Things I’ll Miss About Japan.