Culture Shock in Japan: What the Fukuoka?
Fukuoka tower by Héctor Ratia
I’ve spent the past eight months in Japan studying Japanese on a scholarship from Nihon Keizai Daigaku, organised through links with my college at Oxford University. I live in Fukuoka, on the southern island of Kyushu in a dormitory provided by the university with some other people on the same scholarship. As a little disclaimer, some of what I say here may be different in more or less urban parts of Japan, but overall I hope this will give you some idea of what you are in for wherever you end up.
Being the OutsiderIn Japan you are a gaijin - literally an ‘outside person’ and in one of the most homogenous developed nations in the world, that’s going to attract some attention. Exactly how much depends on where you are- in rural areas you can be recognised and remembered after a single bus ride; in the suburbs groups of school children will look at you as you pass; and in the city centre people are barely bothered. I imagine in the bright lights of Tokyo and Kyoto gaijin are much less notable than around here.
There are good and bad points to all this attention. Hostility comes in the mildest of forms when groups of kids practise their English swearwords at you. It’s more likely you will simply feel frustrated by the staring, giggling and whispered comments. On the other hand, people can be incredibly welcoming and you find people who are keen to get to know you, invite you back to their house, cook for you and have you stay over, all within 24 hours of meeting you. This fascination can be a little overbearing but the more laid back people make great friends and are a good source of insider information if you haven’t mastered reading Japanese yet. There is also no shortage of young people who are happy to meet up for language exchange, which in practise usually means getting lunch together then going shopping! Another advantage is that gaijin circles can be fairly close-knit within a city and whilst I’m sure I should be advising you to avoid anyone who can speak English to improve your language, realistically, if you’re feeling lonely, your local international community is a great place to find friends.
Fukuoka-Now is a useful website for meeting Japanese and foreigners alike in Fukuoka.
SafetyIt’s very easy to get complacent about safety and crime in Japan when you see the locals reserving café tables with their handbags whilst they queue and lone teenage girls walking home from cram school late at night. Groups of young men are more likely to step out of your way with a little bow than to threaten you. It’s been a really nice experience to live in a place that feels so safe but obviously crime does happen so don’t let the feeling go to your head. If nothing else, you don’t want to get used to keeping your wallet hanging out your back pocket, Japanese-style, if you intend to return to Britain…
Rules are rules are rulesThis aspect of Japanese culture was definitely the most difficult for me to adjust to. You aren’t allowed to make phone calls on the train. The dormitory demands that bikes be kept in their designated lot. Employers insist you turn up half an hour early (unpaid) to ‘plan lessons’ when they know full well you already have plans and just sit there twiddling your thumbs. It’s hard to pinpoint, but one gets the sense that some things are done, and some rules are obeyed, simply for the sake of it, rather than having any rational basis. It’s frustrating to be told what to do when you can think of no good reason for it but take it from me, you can’t change it. Relax and do as the Japanese do. Well, most of the time anyway.
Shopping and Customer ServiceIn Japan, the customer is truly king. The staff are always smiling, never too busy to help and don’t expect any politeness in return. There really is nothing you can do in response to the cheery shouts of “Irashaimase” (“welcome”) except give a little nod of recognition and plenty of people don’t even bother to thank the guy behind the counter – I guess they just don’t realise how good they’ve got it! Whatever you ask the service staff to do, they will do and they will do right. However, do expect them to take their time making sure it’s right. Whether it’s getting a phone, a bank account or just simply directions, allow at least twice the amount of time you’d think you’ll need.
Opening hours are a little different, with shops closing late at night but not opening until 10am. This doesn’t matter too much though as you are almost always within spitting distance of a convenience store, which are open all night. Conveniently, you can do all sorts of convenient things here, from buying milk to concert tickets, printing photos to paying for things bought online.
In terms of prices, think London. Japan is a fairly expensive place to live but they do have a saving grace in their hundred yen shops which roll everything that was great about TG Hughes and Woolworths into one very cheap, decent quality package. Another thing that is not so expensive is:
Food glorious foodYou can easily eat out for ¥800 and the cheap lunch deal is prolific. Supermarkets are comparatively more expensive and as you probably expect, western food is a luxury. Think ¥300 for 250g of cereal. If you absolutely must have your favourite thing from home, Kaldi, a foreign foods store, is your best bet. Also, rather bizarrely, vegetables and especially fruit do not come as standard in a supermarket, so be sure to locate your nearest seller in order to avoid scurvy.
A specific problem I faced is that it’s quite difficult to be a vegetarian in Japan and the concept is not very well understood. As long as you are prepared with lots of phrases (write them down if necessary) and a little persistence you should be able to convince most restaurants to prepare you something without meat or fish. Learning the kanji for different meats and fish is also useful, even if it feels a little perverse to learn all about what you don’t want. On the plus side, necessity will quickly make you a master at navigating a menu. Fortunately Indian and Italian restaurants are quite popular and always have something vegetarian.
EtiquetteWhen you’re eating, be aware of your chopsticks. Don’t stand them up in your rice as the likeness to funerary incense makes this big faux-pas. Also, try not to wave them around as you speak and don’t use them to point at people. If you feel the urge to gesticulate, put the chopsticks down, annoying as that is once you’ve got a good grip on them. You will undoubtedly come across low tables where the diners sit on the floor and be amazed at the people who can kneel down and sit on their heels for hours. Don’t worry however, if you have to shift positions to stay comfortable, I’ve seen plenty of people doing this too. Before I came, I heard it was rude to douse food with soy sauce but this really doesn’t seem to be an issue. Common sense can dictate here: a bowl of rice from the canteen is fair game but it’s better not to blot out the taste of a dish someone has painstakingly prepared just for you.
The Japanese can be quite indirect with their requests and suggestions so make sure you’re aware of what they are really trying to get at. For instance, when someone offers to demonstrate how the cloth provided can be used to wipe the surfaces: they are asking you to clean the kitchen.
The Girls and the BoysIn Japan it’s not just women who can be painfully fashion conscious; the men more than keep up. This makes people-watching a fantastic pastime with outfits ranging from the painfully cool to the downright hilarious. Keep a particular eye out for the gyaru (from the word ‘girl’) whose daily outfits give Lady Gaga a run for her money. In general, you’ll notice the girls are never without a pair of heels, even when mountain climbing (I’m not joking). Mainstream female fashion is very girly and sometimes tends to make the wearer look infantile. The incredibly popular girl band AKB48, for instance, don pink, tarted-up versions of a school uniform. Some of them really are 13 but others are in their 20s: I’m not sure which is more disturbing. For me, this is the weirdest aspect of Japanese culture and goes so far as to have swathes of women deliberately walking pigeon-toed in order to look cute, i.e. like a toddler.
The genders tend to stick together in friendship groups and even at university men and women’s accommodation is kept separate, in my case, on totally different sites. This seems to perpetuate a kind of high-school relationship between the sexes where they both gaze longingly at each other from afar but rarely have the courage to speak to them. Gay men are known to each other but aren’t out to their families or (especially) their co-workers and in eight months I’ve not met a single openly lesbian woman. Public displays of affection never go beyond holding hands and one gets the general impression everyone feels a little repressed. All this really means for you is that if you’re interested in someone, it’s best to make the first move or you could be waiting a while!
Business and PleasureAs a native English speaker, earning money in Japan is mind-blowingly easy – unfortunately, so it spending it! Teaching jobs usually require no experience or references and are both fairly easy to come by (check an international community website such as Fukuoka-Now) and well paid. The average wage in Fukuoka is ¥3000 an hour. Modelling is even a credible option as gaijin faces are popular on a whole range of adverts. Proof reading is difficult to find though as it seems no one actually minds whether their English information is correct. As a student you are allowed to work for 20 hours a week once you’ve got your work permit from your local Immigration Office, not that any employer of mine has ever asked to see it!
As for spending the money, well, the opportunities are endless. If you are thinking of travelling be careful to budget plenty of cash for transport because between road tolls, shinkansen and an absence of low cost carriers, there is no cheap way to get around the country quickly. If you don’t mind doing it the slow and arduous way, and only at certain times of the year, look into the jyuuhachikippu, which gives you unlimited travel on local trains for five none-consecutive days at a very reasonable price.
Fukuoka has justifiably been voted the best shopping city in the world with more shops than you could visit in a month located within a mile of the main train station, piled on top of each other in skyscrapers and underground streets. You can bathe in onsen: these public baths which use naturally hot water from beneath Japan’s volcanic archipelago vary in size and design, the best of which are sprawling complexes you can easily spend a whole day relaxing in. You can visit festivals: wherever you end up in Japan, try to get your hands on a list of local festivals and visit as many as possible to soak up the atmosphere.
NightlifeBy night you can sample the delights of nomihoudai: all you can drink deals, which are actually illegal in the UK but the standard in clubs and bars here. Unfortunately, I’ve found the clubs here leave a little something to be desired, not least because smoking inside is legal (in fact, smoking in the street is discouraged!) so your eyes can start to sting after a few hours. The main issue, which I believe is specific to Fukuoka, is that whilst you can smoke and drink as much as you desire, dancing is strictly forbidden after 1am. You read that right. This Footloose-esque rule is fairly inexplicable but seems to have something to do with controlling antisocial behaviour. It has been increasingly enforced in recent years and I now know of only one tiny place (FuBar) that still flouts it. Everywhere else will either be a club, allowing dancing and closing at 1am, or technically a bar, which will have loud music and stay open all night but bouncers will enforce the ban on dancing.
Packing and PreparingDon’t Bring:
Your phone from Britain as it won’t work here. Best to leave it at home with someone to send the occasional text to keep the number active for your return. An electronic dictionary. These are really useful, especially ones you can write the kanji into using a stylus, but they are much cheaper in Japan, so buy one when you arrive. Toiletries. This isn’t the back of beyond so don’t waste precious weight allowance on the likes of shampoo. In fact I’d recommend you leave space if possible for any clothes you buy here. Note the exceptions below.
A few toiletries. Sanitary towels can be a little difficult to distinguish from incontinence pads at first, so it’s worth bringing a month’s supply. Antiperspirant doesn’t exist here, despite the severe sweatiness of the summer months, so bring what you think you’ll need. Toothpaste tastes really odd is expensive so bring a tube or two from home.
Shoes. Women, if your feet are larger than a size 6, you will haven difficultly buying women’s shoes here except in international stores like Zara and Forever 21. You might not want to bring your highest heels though, as they will probably make you taller than the tallest man in the bar.
Skype. Download it, use it, train your friends and family to use it - it’s free but, particularly if you’re leaving your other half behind for a year, it may well become your most valuable possession. It’s also worth making a few time conversion charts if you know you have friends who will have difficultly figuring out what time it is where you are!
A pile of cash. Japan is still much more of a cash economy than the UK, although there are more and more cards about. You’ll need a bit of money before any new jobs start paying out so it’s worth having a stash of yen. Check out Money Saving Expert to find the best conversion deal.
Language TipsIf you only learn one script before you get here (assuming you don’t already speak Japanese), make it katakana. This is used for loan words, of which there are lots in useful places like washing machine instructions. Learn a few katakana words which have come from English words to get a feel for how the words are adapted to the Japanese kana and it should help you out a bit when you first arrive. Learning kanji this year, I’ve found the traditional method of repeatedly writing page after page of the same kanji until it sticks has not been at all effective for me. It’s the most commonly taught method, particularly by native Japanese teachers, because that’s how the Japanese learn them at school. However, I’ve found “Remembering the Kanji” by J. Heisig infinitely more effective. It’s not for everyone but I’d suggest at least reading the introduction to decide whether it will work for you.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time in Japan despite of (and sometimes because of!) the culture shock I experienced. In some ways I am happy to be an observer of this culture, rather than embedded in it but I’ve found Japan endlessly fascinating and most of the people I’ve met have been very welcoming and friendly. There is always something to learn, someone to meet and somewhere to go and I’ll be sorry to leave. So, good luck and have a great time!