This is partly inspired by one of EveningStarfish‘s posts (which I have yet to reply to, whoops) and partly by an advertisement I saw on twitter earlier today.
When you live in another country and get into conversation with the locals, it’s not unusual for people to eventually ask whether anything has surprised you about living in this new country. Japanese people are often really curious about what foreigners think of Japan, so I’m guessing most of us who live here have heard this one a lot. Before I get started: fellow people from gaikoku, what are your “surprising things” about living in Japan?
Anyway, here we go:
- ATMs have “opening hours”. This was by far the biggest WTF for me the first time I came here. It’s not like there’s a little person inside the ATM who gets tired and needs to go to sleep! What is the point of technology if it can’t operate for more hours than a human!
- People literally bite cream cheese. I recoiled in horror the first time I saw what was expected, and even now cream cheese commercials make me feel mildly sick. This is the one from the tweet I mentioned. Maybe it’s only me? 😅
- Toilets can be super gross. This should be a no-brainer, right? Toilets everywhere are nasty. Except that the world goes on about Japan’s amazing heated washlet loos and fails to mention that in many places, stinky squat toilets are still the norm, and there’s never any soap to wash your hands with!
- Bottled tea and coffee are often hella sweet. The Briton in me was delighted the first time I saw something called Royal Milk Tea in a convenience store. Ah hah! thought I. Tea! Except it was SO SWEET. The taste of disappointment.
- Nobody knows what pumpkin is. A trivial seasonal one for you! Everyone thinks kabocha squash and pumpkin are one and the same, yet nobody ever questions why kabocha are dark green but Halloween pumpkins are orange.
- People can still smoke in restaurants and bars. As an ex-smoker and as a mother I find this frustrating on more than one level.
- FRUIT IS SO EXPENSIVE. Unless you’re friends with the local farmer or grandpa who works a patch of land, fruit here is way pricier than back home, even when it’s in season. My kingdom for a regular supply of reasonably-priced fruit!
- Customer service is useless when you actually have a complaint. Like yes, very polite, especially in areas with lots of tourism, but the poor soul working the help desk has absolutely no autonomy/power to offer refunds or compensation for significant problems, so trying to get an issue resolved can simply be an exercise in frustration.
- Sleep is for the weak (or for the train). The image of salarymen sleeping anywhere is a fairly common one, but seeing elementary school aged kids riding the train home late after cram school and hearing about the hectic schedules of junior high schoolers really surprised me. Kids need to rest for their brains and bodies to grow! Even Japanese ones!
- “Because.” Oh, heaven forbid you politely enquire as to the reason behind something 😅 It is very un-Japanese to ask “why”, and if you ask the wrong person at the wrong time you’ll just get “because it’s the rules” with no further explanation. With that said, there is an entertaining TV character called Chico whose whole TV show revolves around asking “Why?” to things people never usually consider. I love Chico-chan.
- Supermarkets do things differently. I guess this is just me being too used to the kind of big supermarket that sells everything, and I’m now so used to it that I’d forgotten that it ever confused me. Similar to fishie’s Finland-vs-Italy store confusion, I was occasionally thrown by things not being sold in the stores that I had just automatically assumed they’d be sold at.
- People were unfriendly and unhelpful. What, right? No, but seriously. I now know it’s often a case of chronic shyness, not wanting to interfere in something that’s not your business, or being worried about causing embarrassment to the other party, but for the love of god if someone is struggling to get a suitcase up or down a flight of stairs, would it kill you to offer a hand! Any time I had ever gone through London with a suitcase, people would lend me a hand when managing the stairs. I think I could probably count the times I wasn’t offered help on one hand. In Japan, though? Fat chance. This is also famously true of the priority seating on trains and buses – travelling anywhere in England and Scotland with a broken leg was infinitely easier and people were infinitely kinder!
- Japanese food is NOT healthy. Don’t fall for it! Don’t believe the lies! When Japanese people say this, they are thinking of the traditional stuff, the pickled vegetables and grilled fish. What they fail to mention is that Japanese food uses LOTS of sugar, and that the Japanese person’s idea of “Japanese food” does not actually include most of the foods that Euros and USians think of as “Japanese food”. And that, my friends, is why my naive self gained so much weight since moving here 😅
- Awamori is lethal. Oh god I was not expecting such potent alcohol to come from a country where half the population goes bright red at the tiniest sip of beer. Oh god. Beware, beware the spirits from the southern isles.
While this is by no means an exhaustive list, I think I’ll stop here. Most of these are negative, right? I know! Don’t get me wrong, I am perfectly happy living here. Nowhere is perfect and I could readily make a long list of things wrong with England too. But I think the internet’s obsession with making Japan out to be this supremely clean, polite, organised, customer-first country etc. has got a fair bit to answer for. Humans are humans wherever you go, but I think that when all of the promotion and starry-eyed reviews and blog posts advertise Japan as this country of elegant history, kawaii pop culture and omotenashi service (which Japan itself likes to perpetuate!) it sort of lulls you into foolishly believing in some magical Japanese exceptionalism and makes the more negative/”normal” experiences stand out that much more.
A friend of a friend once said that he didn’t like having great service all the time, because when excellence is the norm the only alternative is a sub-par experience and that stands out so much more. To him, when the normal experience was moderate to indifferent, he could appreciate much more when people went above and beyond. When I first heard this I thought he was a bit of a misery-guts for disapproving of the “standard excellence” of Japanese restaurant and hotel service, but looking back at the list I just made makes me wonder if he didn’t actually have a valid point…
Ahh I definitely count this as a reply to my post so thank you 😂 So many good points, I remember the toilets surprising me during a trip too! 🤢
The smoking thing is *so* obnoxious, and it’s especially weird since Japan’s the only place in the world I’ve seen where people *don’t* smoke at bus stops (which on its own is an A+ great thing). Like, if bus stops (outdoors) are bad enough, how are restaurants (indoors) not? >_>
Also I haven’t tried awamori and I’m so adding that to the to-do list for when travel is safe again 👍
Aaalso something I didn’t include yesterday since it doesn’t really fit the ‘surprise’ theme, but my god the bureaucracy. I hate it anywhere but Japan’s *definitely* the only place where a conference has asked me to re-print and re-sign forms because they were signed in the wrong colour 🙄
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Everything on your list was surprising to me as well, plus the love of cash. Coming from Kenya, I thought Japan would be this land of amazing technology and was surprised to find just how manual everything was and how so many transactions are cash-based.
I was also surprised by the thousands of rules governing everything, people never have to think for themselves and also, never asking why to any rule, just blind obedience.
Having stayed here for so long (6 years), I think I’ve started taking the positive things like the safety standards for granted, and the negatives seem to stand out so much. So I’ve been making a point lately of appreciating the good things, like the polite customer service.
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This is a very interesting post particularly your point about it being useless to ask ‘why.’ I ask why ALL the time so I would probably be glared at in Japan lol
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Number 12 reminds me of home. Lending a hand? Nope, most Swedes would rather pretend you don’t exist. … which no that’s not a good thing, but the general lack of interaction with strangers here may or may not have played a part in how well I’ve acclimated to living here. 😬😂
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HAH oh no ;; I’ve heard from my Finnish bff about how in Finland social distancing was the norm long before covid, but I see more than one of the northern countries is a little frosty towards others 😅
I agree with many of the points you mentioned… but omg lol the cream cheese one just set me off.
also it reminds me of the time when we met in Koenji and went to that tiny random cafe and ordered “cheese cake” and just got this giant slice of cream cheese topped with a dollop of blueberry jam.
I still have no words for that XD; we tried so hard to find the cake… we didn’t give up until the end XD;
my overall first impressions and surprises about Japan were: “for a country touted to be technologically advanced, it can be so backwards in many respects”
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