12 April, 2016

The rule for life in Japan

An American friend here is going for his Japanese licence this week. He asked for advice on Facebook this morning from others who've done the same. 

It is well known here that going for your licence as a foreigner is difficult and often people retake the practical test several times before they are passed. I'm very thankful I'm an Australian. Australia has a reciprocal agreement with Japan and we just had paperwork and red tape to get through in order to get our Japanese licences, not tests.

What interested me most was one of the comments giving advice:
John and I both passed the first time.  For the written...always choose the answer that best represents 'NOT annoying other drivers'!  True story.
That four-word rule covers life in Japan in general. You try not to annoy other people. 

The difficulty is, though, what annoys an Australian is different to what annoys a Japanese person. For example, talking loudly in a train annoys Japanese people, but is acceptable in Australia. Sniffing loudly is frowned upon in Australia, but seems to be preferred in Japan to blowing ones nose. The difficult thing is that most often Japanese people won't tell you if you're annoying them!

I've always said that one of the biggest mental cross-cultural challenges I had when moving to Tokyo was feeling as though I was jama. This Japanese word means obstacle, nuisance, or hinderance. For me I initially always felt as though I was in "someone's road" in Tokyo. I couldn't park my car anywhere, when I stopped to consider what to buy in the grocery store I was blocking someone, when I couldn't immediately understand someone, I was a nuisance. Insightfully, when you enter someone else's home you say, "Ojama shimasu", which is a polite expression meaning, "Excuse me for disturbing (or interrupting) you."

Disturbing others is considered a significant no-no in Japan.

I reflected with another foreign friend other day about how Japanese love rules (that's how they know whether they are annoying other people). If a situation has no rules they feel uneasy. We foreigners don't know all the rules, being foreigners! So we have to compensate with a lot of observation. Generally speaking if we've not seen someone do something, then probably it isn't good to do it. For example, eating on the train, or while walking. Though these are unwritten rules that we know about, you can tell they're rules because you don't generally see people doing them, so it's best to avoid doing them. Although admittedly they're both more common now than they were 15 years ago when we arrived.

Observation is vital when it comes to communication too, a lot of times I'm not understanding many words, but I've figured out what is most likely in the situation and along with body language and perhaps some key words, I guesstimate about what's been said or what's expected. I suspect I sometimes look like I understand way more than I actually do.

I think that life in Japan has made me more observant as well as much more aware of where I am in relation to other people (both physically and in terms of how my actions affect others). 

So, when you next come to Japan, just remember: do your best not to annoy other people. 

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