It doesn’t matter how much you study a culture, there will always be surprises when you relocate and begin to start a life there – even if it is short-term. I studied the Japanese language and culture for 5 years through high-school and participated in two 10-day exchange trips to Salmon Arm’s Sister City – Inashiki (previously named Azuma-Machi). Despite my – so I thought – extensive knowledge I am delighted to say there were many things that still caught me by surprise in the Land of the Rising Sun. Some of these are common knowledge known to me before I stepped on my plane leaving Canada… others, not so much. My trips wouldn’t have been the same without these. Good luck!
1. To greet someone there are no handshakes. Instead they bow. The higher the rank of the other person, the lower you bow to show respect.
2. A most common thing in all of Western Culture. What do we all say in passing after hello? “How are you?” Well, in Japan they say, “Hello” and then make a comment on the weather. When you ask them, “How are you?” they think it strange and chuckle.
3. No one says bless you… as a result I have now (even 3 years after my return) developed the habit to always say, “Bless me” after I sneeze. Anyone who knows me knows this to be true.
4. The gentlemen in the train stations with white gloves are not a fallacy! Although, they do not “push people in” as is the common misunderstanding. They are there to ensure all limbs, packages and luggage are in the train when the doors close… because once the doors close, they don’t reopen.
5. Also on the topic of the metro, there are cars reserved only for females during rush hour, which are always located at the back of the trains.
6. What do you mean words aren’t by definition? Sometimes yes means no? And maybe usually means no… but sometimes maybe also means maybe and yes means yes? Have fun! Read the facial expressions and learn by the length of pauses what the real answer is!
7. One of my favourite experiences! The Onsens (hot springs) and public bath houses. Once one gets over their self-conscious and westernly-analytical beliefs and fears of bathing naked in rows with a bunch of other women before laying around naked in a giant pool of hot water (especially when still a teenager)… they are remarkably enjoyable and relaxing! You completely cleanse yourself first (shampoo, conditioner, soap, shave, brush teeth, etc.), then relax in a gorgeous giant pool of mineral water, after which you complete the entire cleansing process again.
8. The peace sign will find its way into any and every picture.
9. Gift giving is an essential part of the Japanese Culture. When you visit someone, have someone new or respected come into your home, travel to another part of the globe or country… small gifts for everyone!
10. Squat toilets! You won’t be able to avoid them forever! They really aren’t so bad once you get used to them.
11. You will receive pocket tissue from vendors everywhere on the street. Always make sure you keep some with you as most public washrooms do not have toilet paper available.
Written by: Heather Osborne – TRU Study Abroad Ambassador 2013-2014 and a Business and English Student at Thompson Rivers University. She has studied abroad for 3 semesters at: Bunkyo Gakuin University (Japan), Kyoto Sangyo University (Japan), and Tianjin University of Technology (China) and travelled extensively around Asia, Australia and Europe.