We’re all human, and share a lot in common. But now that I live in Japan, I can witness in person how culture works to mold our personalities from childhood. If you transplant a person from one culture, and place them into another – unprepared, it could result in a fish-out-of-water experience. This is especially interesting to me as my kids were born in the US but now developing here.
While I see very subtle differences in Japanese and American culture on a daily basis, here are a few that jumped out at me early on:
1. Projection of Strength
In the US I’ve often felt as if to get things done, you must prepare to go to battle. Need a utility bill corrected? Start out nice – but be ready to ramp up the intensity. Need to convince a boss of something? Things might get a little heated. The appearance of strength is often interpreted as being passionate about something in the US. Not so much in Japan. Superior effort and service is the norm while maintaining order, balance and harmony in society as well as with your own emotions is expected. In short, being determined, persistent yet respectful, and showing great effort are how you will succeed.
2. Eye Contact
How shall I put this – it’s just different. In America eye-contact happens always, and is expected to show respect. In Japan having direct eye contact with a superior could even be seen as disrespectful. While I enjoy quite a bit of leeway here as a foreigner, I do feel a subtle difference. People are happy to engage me and connect – often after I extend a friendly greeting. If someone walks by me they might not make eye contact, possibly thinking I’m a tourist, don’t speak the language or most likely just nervous about an awkward encounter. But once I engage people, I’m often lavished with friendly conversation, attention and yes, eye contact.
3. Driving Habits
I would say that in the US, there is a the bad stereotype of the asian driver. I have found that in Japan that people are generally excellent drivers, who are extremely polite and courteous of other drivers. This probably has something to do with the fact that they must spend $2000-3000 on driving school to become certified experts, and a huge investment of time to receive a license. The upside for them, is that generally traffic cops often tend to just leave people alone, at least in the countryside. Possibly being a great driver depends on everyone following the rules too, rather than the general chaos of the US. Rather than a friendly wave – you’ll see people waiting for each other, and bowing as a respectful thank you.
This extends into a number of areas, from the language itself to confrontations with others. Approaching something very directly can commonly be seen as rude, and the result is that in the language, you often hear people dancing around a topic, and decisions and issues often taking a surprisingly long time to get worked out. I’ve often thought – can’t we just ask directly? As with most things, there is a Japanese way to approach things, and often every angle must be considered.
5. A Process for Everything
There’s been a few times since moving to Japanese that I’ve thought, “without help, I could not have got this done”. Getting a cell phone, setting up a bank account, applying for a drivers license – things such as this, seem to take a ridiculous amount of time and old fashioned written paperwork. Japan is advanced in many ways, but there is a specific process for everything, usually involving a lot of paperwork. Make a mistake – you will likely be starting over. While I believe the attention to detail results in fewer errors and a clear result, the process itself can often feel far less efficient or overly complex. Cutting through the red-tape seems like a uniquely American ideal.
6. Looking Out for #1
There is a certain level of independence that Americans have, which wasn’t exactly clear to me until I moved to Japan. Not the kind of independence you might imagine (like, Yay – America – Freedom, Independence). I mean acting independently, the actions we take serving ourselves, but sometimes being only self-serving. The great positive side of this is our willingness to take risk and act alone, and make a big or even risky decision! Americans roll the dice once in a while, and I love this about our culture. Japanese tend to look towards the collective success and happiness of the group, whether it’s their company, their family or even group of friends. This cultural difference holds plenty of room for misunderstanding, simply because our approach to things can be so different.
That’s it for now. I know there are an endless supply of differences which make living in a different culture fun, interesting, at times frustrating – but mostly thought provoking and exciting.
Have you experienced an obvious cultural difference? Please comment and share!
Check out my post on Navigating Challenges on Your Trip to Japan