July 11, 1999
As you might have guesses from the subject line, this email is about trivial little things that are different in Japan. However, before we get to the main section, there are a few even more trivial things that I want to mention first.
Yesterday, my friend Laura and I saw a young boy (maybe junior high school) wearing a shirt that said "Keep Honking. I'm Reloading." (This is funnier if you know that all guns are against the law in Japan, and the Japanese think all Americans own guns and use them regularly.) Another boy's shirt had a picture of an animal and the phrase "My Bathing Ape." The animal was a lion.
And do you remember the scrubby-looking guy who knighted me with the title "strong sex magician"? Well, I saw him again not too long ago on a train, and he recognized me immediately. I guess I don't exactly blend in with everyone else. He came and sat down next to me, and let me tell you, this man reeked. I was getting drunk off of his breath. Then, he leaned over (I wasn't watching him, but I knew when he got closer because the stench became almost unbearable), tapped me on my shoulder, and when he was sure he had my attention made the following proclamation:
"You . . . you . . . you . . . you GOOD strong sex magician!"
So, apparently, I have been promoted. Once again, however, I have to ask: how did he know? Who told him?
Anyway, after all of the sumo excitement I thought I'd get back to the little things that make Japan Japan. So, I made a list of the small, insignificant, and trivial differences, vaguely sorted into categories. Doubtless I have missed many, but I thought this was a good start. Some of them are funny, but most of them are just little things that I noticed (or that Kristin and Laura noticed, since they thought of some of them).
For weddings, men wear black suits and white ties. For funerals, men wear black suits and black ties. Always.--
Black pants, black shoes, white socks. Enough said.--
High school girls have these weird loose socks that look kind of like leg warmers. Except, they are held up with glue. Real glue, applied to their legs. I've seen it happen. --
High school girls have to wear skirts all year. Most of the students roll the waists up until they become mini-skirts, even in the middle of winter. In at least one school it is official policy that the bottom of the skirt must be at least 20 cm (7 inches) ABOVE the knee. Gee, I wonder who designs the uniforms.--
When it is raining, most public buildings have long plastics bags for your umbrella so that it doesn't drip all over the place. They look exactly like very large condoms.--
The new cool look for women is white lipstick, hair dyed gray, and skin tanned until nearly orange. It is butt ugly.--
Tall shoes are also in. I mean, TALL shoes. Like, 4-6 inch flats is NORMAL, and I've seen much higher. Many women walking in them resemble limping ducks.--
Many high school boys have THICK plastic earrings. Like, a quarter of an inch in diameter. It looks like some kind of painful industrial accident.--
Piercings (ears, nose, etc.) are only performed at hospitals, and not all hospitals will do them. Most of the aforementioned high school boys probably did the piercing themselves.--
However, many women don't have their ears pierced because "it would hurt too much."
2. Food and Restaurants--
Nobody drinks water. I hear gasps of shock when I put tap water into a glass and drink it. Even if it is 145 degrees outside, hot tea is considered more appropriate. --
Apparently, every food in Japan is healthy. Just ask someone. It is a rare meal at which somebody doesn't say "oh, that is very healthy Japanese food." In one particular case, the food being referred to was a deep fried chicken patty with cheese.--
At a restaurant, nobody ever asks for a slight change, like substituting one side order for another. When you suggest doing so, the people you are with look very worried, consult the menu, and say that it is impossible.--
When you ask a restaurant to make a small change, the first reaction is shock, but they usually do it. However, once something is ordered it is nearly impossible to cancel the order.--
You can't teach an old bartender new tricks. Even if you see all you need, if they haven't heard of something it is very difficult to get them to make it. If they do make it, they will charge you for each ingredient separately, making it a very expensive drink.--
If your bill seems bigger than it should be, then there was probably an unposted "seating charge," which is a per-person fee charged no matter how long you stayed or how much you ate or drank. On the other hand, there is no tipping.--
Sometimes there is a little button at the table that you press when you want service. I like those.--
Often, drinks are only filled halfway. This is a sign of hospitality, not of being cheap.--
Most restaurants (and stores) have one random off-day during the week. Usually it is the day you try to take friends there. Often it is Tuesday, because the Chinese character for Tuesday means fire, and it is bad luck to be open that day.--
Usually, there are no napkins at the table. However, you are given a warm damp towel at the beginning of the meal to wash your hands. I usually use this as a napkin, as do most people.--
No matter how long they have been in Japan, foreigners will be complimented on their chopstick usage.
Tobacco and alcohol are freely available from vending machines. However, at stores you must show identification. So, minors can buy beer at a machine standing directly in front of a liquor store, but they can't go into the store to buy it.--
Pornography is available and on display at any convenience store or book store. It is everywhere, and there is LOTS of it.--
However, all explicit stuff has been fuzzed out. Seems kind of strange. Pornography is a national obsession, yet there is no real hard core stuff at all. Young girls, however, are very prevalent, usually wearing a high school uniform.--
If you are drunk, ALL behavior is forgiven and forgotten the next day.
Doors on taxis open and close by themselves. This takes a little time (and a few jammed fingers) to get used to.--
People often park in the middle of the street, on streets that are very narrow. Other drivers wait patiently until there is a break in oncoming traffic and they can go around. Nobody honks. Ever. Except taxi drivers, who average about one honk per block; I think they are making up for the rest of the population.--
People use their emergency brakes every time they stop. Even at traffic lights and stop signs. At night, they turn off their lights every time they stop, too.--
Toll roads exist, but nobody uses them because they are very expensive. More importantly, everyone just KNOWS that they are too expensive, so they are practically empty (which is very convenient if you do use them).--
Bullet trains are even more expensive than toll roads, but they are always packed.--
This may be because toll roads are the only places in the entire country without vending machines or gas stations.--
Even for short trips, people always use travel agents to plan their trips for them. Tour groups are by far the favorite form of travel.--
Japanese people usually travel in their best clothes, which sometimes include tight dresses and heels. Even when they know they have to walk long distances.--
People rev their engines hard when they first start their cars, and again when they arrive at their destination. Conventional wisdom has it that an engine needs to be warmed up, and that the fastest way to do so is to rev the engine. Also, at the end of the trip, the engine needs to be flushed of all the bad exhaust and stuff, and revving the engine accomplishes this, too. In practice, it means that some asshole who leaves every morning at 6:15am revs his motorcycle loudly and wakes me up. Pretty soon I am going to start keeping large, throwable objects handy.
5. Personal Hygiene--
Some bathrooms have a noise button to cover up your "personal" sounds. If no such button exists, people flush continuously to cover up their other sounds. Yeah, like they're really fooling anyone.--
Bathrooms have no toilet paper, paper towels, or any other drying apparatus. On the other hand, some have toilet paper vending machines (and people always carry small hand-drying towels with them).--
There is no soap in the bathrooms, even if there is soap at a sink nobody ever uses it.--
Despite avid brushing, the dental health in Japan is questionable at best. This is especially strange because after lunch nearly every teacher brushes their teeth in the middle of the teachers' room, often while carrying on conversations.--
No one uses deodorant, so it isn't sold anywhere. Fortunately, I stocked up last time I went home.
6. General behavior--
Upon entering any store and restaurant, one or more people will shout something incomprehensible at you. Don't respond. It means something like "welcome," but they don't really mean it. It's just a matter of form, and it would impolite NOT to do it. Often they should something else at you when you leave. It used to make me very nervous.--
At a traffic light, nobody will walk across on a red light. However, in the middle of the block, where there is no crosswalk, people often weave through moving traffic to get across.--
The most common (and most acceptable) present at weddings is money. Money is also given at funerals. The receiving party then has to send gifts to each person who gave them money. The value of the gift is supposed to be about half the amount given.--
People only play one sport or have only one hobby. But they are REALLY serious about that one thing. Really, really serious. For example, if someone says that they play tennis, chances are they play 6-7 days a week for 1-2 hours per day, at least.--
People often don't have sick days in their contracts. Even if they do, they almost never use them.--
People rarely take vacation days, even though they have a large number of paid vacation days in their contracts (teachers, for example have 40 days, or 8 weeks, of paid vacation). However, they will take paid vacation when they are sick, even if they have sick days in the contract.--
When a movie ends at the theater, nobody moves. I saw Star Wars today, and everyone remained seated for nearly all the credits, even though they couldn't read any of it. It was weird.
And that doesn't even scratch the surface. Of course, it is impossible to fully describe another country, but I thought that little things like this might give a better picture of how people live everyday. Hopefully it wasn't too boring.