As I’ve mentioned once or twice in the past, whenever I have an interesting little experience or observation I like to jot down a short personal note so I can come back and blog about it whenever time permits.
Here are a couple notes that’ve been lingering ever since last time I was living in Japan:
Foreigners with Backpacks
Virtually no Japanese, save for otaku, ever wear backpacks.
In a country that’s absolutely obsessed with outward image, style becomes exceedingly important. It’s why you see high school girls walking around with Louis Vuitton bags and hairstylists wearing Rolexes: appearing stylish is so important that people would rather live in a tiny apartment (or at home) and save all their cash for that new designer outfit than the other way around.
The result is that foreigners, who in general don’t seem to care as much about image as their Japanese counterparts, are virtually the only ones walking around with backpacks. For everyone else it’s briefcases, handbags, messenger bags, etc. Much more stylish.
In fact, this tendency is so noticeable that foreigners in Japan have even developed a reputation for their backpack-wearing habits.
I know I’ve always got one 🙂
Due to the strictly enforced work hours of most Japanese companies, it becomes somewhat rare to see middle-aged males out walking around during the day.*
So who do you see out during the day?
Armies of four-foot-tall little old ladies, swarming the supermarkets, shopping streets, and parks. While all the salarymen are chained to their desks and the children are at school…the little old ladies come out to play. It’s quite amusing, actually. Just try to walk directly from one end of a supermarket to another at noon on a weekday. You’d be surprised how difficult it is 🙂
*Note: This is not true of major downtown areas, or of pretty much anywhere in central Tokyo – where there’s a seemingly endless supply of salarymen roaming about the city with suits and briefcases. Where they’re all going I truly do not know, but there are so many of them criss-crossing in every possible direction I’m almost convinced that roaming back and forth around the city is their job. What other explanation could there be?
Many of the foreigners you’ll encounter in Japan, such as myself, find themselves enamored with the country and its culture. They came to and remain here completely by choice. But there are others – who came for various different reasons outside of their control – who never had any draw to the country in particular. For these types of foreigners, especially the ones who don’t speak the language, it can feel like a very, very isolating place.
When I moved to Kyoto for the second time in 2006, I promptly secured an apartment and began searching for deals on used furniture. The search led me to a pair of roomates from India who lived just a couple miles away – they had one pristine double-bed left that they were eager to get rid of before leaving Kyoto and returning home.
It quickly became clear to me that the duo fell into the latter category of foreigners.
When I showed up at their door they were so excited to meet a foreigner with whom they could communicate that after just a few minutes of talking, they actually invited me over for a home-cooked Indian dinner. They also offered to help me carry the bed BY HAND all the way across town to my new apartment (since it wouldn’t fit in a taxi).
I can’t help but feel bad for their situation, so desperate for human interaction that they’d spend an entire evening lugging a piece of furniture across the city just for a bit of friendly conversation. I did try to invite them out a couple times to introduce them to a big group of friends, but for some reason they always declined. Maybe they were nervous because they couldn’t speak a word of Japanese. Or maybe they were just socially uncomfortable 🙁
In any case, they’re now (presumably) happy and back home in India. And I’m getting my Indian food fixes from a new restaurant on Shijo that serves all-you-can-eat Chicken Tikka Masala and Naan for 990 yen 🙂
Talk to me!
Speaking of making friends: Japanese people tend to be shy.
More often than not you’ll see people walking down the street people with their eyes glued to the ground – and were they to accidentally make eye contact, they’d immediately look away. The subways are almost always silent because talking on the phone is against the rules and nobody chats up random stangers. It’s not to be rude, it’s just because they’re uncomfortable. Not outgoing enough to say “hi” to the random person next to them.
This shyness has often been cited as one of the reasons for their difficulty learning English – because although they study hard and want to be able to speak, they’re too ashamed to practice out loud for fear of making a mistake. Compare this to a place like Egypt, where despite the lack of overpriced conversation schools and private tutors (in comparison to Japan), a shocking percentage of the people out on the streets are virtually fluent. Because they spend their whole lives practicing, and the second they see a foreigner, they run over and start a conversation.
The point of all this comes from an interesting phenomenon I’ve experienced on way more than one occasion. Just because they’re shy in Japan does not mean they don’t want to talk. So what do they do? They sit next to you on the train and open up a “Learn English” book. Right next to you. Making sure you can see it. It’s as if they’re putting up a sign that says “Please talk to me! I want to, but I’m too embarrassed to do it by myself!”
It always makes me chuckle 🙂
Sometimes I ask them how to read one of the kanji on the Japanese instructions page section of their book. That always gives them a good laugh 😆
(As an interesting side-note, the shyness is also sometimes cited as one of the reasons for Japan’s incredible nightlife: to release the pressures of perfect conformism and politeness during the standard workweek, when weekends come they go out, add some alcohol to the mix, and really let loose. It’s during these times that their true colors shine, and I’ve met some truly amazing and interesting people. People who on a normal Monday look and behave exactly like everyone around them.)