Culture Shock every day in Japan

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If you’ve spent any time in Japan, you know it can be quite a bewitching place. The delicious food. The quiet shrines. The peaceful gardens. For some, that is enough. Their time in Nippon goes by in a flash and they leave with cherished memories. For others, they have an amazing time, but become stuck on certain things: why is everything so clean? How did that waiter know I was going to drop my chopsticks and have a new set ready for me so fast? And wait – where are all the trash cans? For those who have those remaining, niggling thoughts (and for those who are just curious) maybe a little culture shock could be the cause. 

Japanese hospitality
Japanese hospitality

Culture shock can immediately bring up negative connotations; however, it doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. Culture shock can sometimes simply be an observation or curious musing about something notable in another culture. Japan offers these in spades. 

Most people hear of the clichés: the packed trains, the futuristic toilets, the outrageously expensive fruit. Those are all very interesting, but seem ephemeral and quickly forgotten. On the other hand, there are observations that seem superficial, but, when you think deeper about them, become revealing. A little window into Japanese life where you may gain a bit of insight into this fascinating culture. 

From Iowa to Japan

First, I’ll share a story. When I arrived in Japan in 2006 I knew very little of the country and even less of the language. Coming from rural America (the state of Iowa), I could name a few things that were Japanese, outside of ninja, samurai, sushi, and Nintendo. However, I dove into my new life here headfirst, ready to learn as much as I could about my adopted home. Of course, I was placed in what turned out to be the Iowa of Japan. I loved it, but it seemed very familiar: a small town, few people, everyone knows everyone. I felt at home instantly. 

That didn’t mean I would skip a chance to head to the big city, though. Within my first month living here, I hopped on a bullet train headed for Tokyo. After an absolutely overwhelming day, surrounded by millions of people, I was equal parts exhausted and excited. The city was just as the movies portrayed it, and I was hooked. So hooked, in fact, that I decided to stay overnight. I needed to find a hotel room. 

Streets of Tokyo
Streets of Tokyo – photo by Mike Reddy

As luck would have it, it started to rain. Heavily. Not knowing what to do, I flagged down a taxi and climbed in. I had been in taxis in other cities around the world, and so somewhat knew what I was in for. With the driver looking at me expectantly, I reached into my foggy brain and tried to come up with one of the ten or so Japanese words I had learned during my month living here. 

I managed to say I needed a hotel but could go no further. The driver looked away, nodded his head, and took off. He stared straight ahead into the driving rain. I could see he was trying to dive into his brain and reach the little English he knew, as well. This was going to be a challenge, I thought. Then the driver spoke up. 

“Big money? Little money?” he asked. 

It took me a minute to understand he was trying to ascertain my hotel budget. Did I want an expensive room or a budget one? After I answered, “Little money,” he nodded and kept driving. 

Taxi through Tokyo
Taxi through Tokyo

After a few minutes, he pulled into a parking lotparked, and stopped the meter. I was trying to count out the money so I could pay him, but before I could, he got out of the car, popping an umbrella over his head. He gestured I should stay in the car and took off running towards the hotel. Perplexed, I dutifully waited in the back seat.  

After a few minutes, he ran back and hopped in the driver’s seat. He turned around and said, “No good. Full.” I realized he had gone into the hotel and asked for a vacancy on my behalf, knowing my terrible Japanese would only hinder things. He put the car in drive and drove off. 

This driver continued to other hotels and did the same thing. Finally, at the fourth hotel, he ran back to the taxi, smiling. He had found me an open room! I looked at the taximeter and noticed the driver hadn’t turned the meter back on after the first hotel. He just smiled and said the word “service,” which I later found out meant “free”. I paid a very small charge and tried to tip the driver. He, of course, didn’t accept the money. This guy had gone far above and beyond. I was incredibly moved.  

Japanese Hospitality

This incident made such an impression on my early days in the country that, 15 years later, I still haven’t forgotten it. Since then I’ve come to learn so much about the concept at the heart of what that man did: omotenashi. 

Omotenashi is best described as the Japanese word for hospitality, but it means so much more. Omotenashi is a concept that emphasizes care over expectation; it is the practice of looking after a customer without expecting anything in return. That is why the taxi driver, and many other people in the service industry here in Japan, refused to accept a tip. He did what he did because it made for a better experience for me, the customer. To go even further beyond the Western mantra, here in Japan it is said that お客さんは神様, the customer is god. 

Talk about a culture shock! And you can see examples of omotenashi everywhere you look: the department store staff bowing as you enter, the little baskets under seats in restaurants so your bags and coats don’t have to touch the floor, and the warm towel you are given before each meal. All of these small quirks of Japanese culture are all part of a larger concept of hospitality. It goes deeper than just clean streets and absence of litter on the sidewalk! 

Department store staff prepare to open their doors to customers
Department store staff prepare to open their doors to customers

Speaking of cleanliness, Japan is renowned as being one of the cleanest countries on Earth. Tokyo has almost 40 million people, yet no one is swimming in filth. I’d go so far as to say Japan has the cleanest public bathrooms in the world. Top three, at least! But did you ever consider why that is the case? Again, digging a little deeper may shed some understanding of the people and their mindset. 

Purifying oneself at Meiji Jingu in Tokyo
Purifying oneself at Meiji Jingu in Tokyo – photo by Jeff Krevitt

Some think cleanliness has deep-seated roots in Shinto, the indigenous Japanese religion. Purity is held to the utmost value, including purifying the hands and mouth with water before entering a shrine. Another example is taking off one’s shoes when entering homes and certain restaurants. In Shinto, cleanliness IS godliness, and everyone takes it very seriously. Think of this next time you observe the shopkeeper using a straw broom to sweep up non-existent dust in front of his store! 

So, as you can see, Japan is just different. That’s part of the reason we all ended up falling in love with it. There are all sorts of reasons why it is different, and most of it comes down to these entrenched quirks of culture or history. There are various elements of the culture you might know a bit about and there are the elements that you had absolutely no idea about. It is those things that, even after you have lived in Japan for years, still pop up from time to time and surprise you. Whether you are in the country for a couple of weeks or many decades, these culture shocks remind you why this country is so special.  


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