Oct 202008

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.

For well over a year now I’ve maintained such a document, whittling away at it about as quickly as I add. It’s the document that results in posts like this one in Brazil, or this one in Egypt.

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.

Very 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.)

  17 Responses to “Japan Observations”

  1. I think you mean to say “Whittling away.” Interesting about the shyness. I might scare people there with my talking to strangers attitude.

  2. Oh the backpack, I noticed that in Tokyo quite a bit as well. I’ll add an observation that I know is true for Tokyo, but not so sure about the rest of the country.

    Speaking in Earshot of Another Foreigner
    Often times when walking through the station or most anywhere in Tokyo you will encounter a number of foreigners. More often then not they are speaking English or some other foreign language. The moment you are within earshot of them, all speaking stops until you are exactly out of ear shot. They can be having an animated conversation then you get 5 ft away from them and silence…

    As per the Obaachans, I think they are often more of a hazard than anything else. Nothing like being behind one in the station that decides to come to a sudden stop directly in front of you while you try not to cause a pile up and squash her to get your heart started. And the purple hair. Gotta love the purple hair.

  3. hehe, widdling…perhaps that’s your new blend of the words “whittling” and “piddling” 😛

    you know, the funny thing is, i’m shy but that doesn’t necessarily stop me from talking to strangers. i guess if my curiosity outweighs my fear of looking like some random creeper, then i’ll talk to the stranger 🙂

  4. I hate carrying a back pack in Japan. However, it is necessary to have what you need when you are away from home. In the US, I keep what I need away from home in my car.

  5. Hi, I saw your website! It really nice! My name is Miho and I am really interested in your life!!! I live in Kyoto too. If you have time, please email me!!!
    look forward to hering from u.

  6. Noz: Oops! Spelling error fixed.

    Actually they don’t (usually) get scared when others are outgoing – they love it, because they WANT to interact with you, they just don’t know how to initiate.

    James: That’s so true! In fact…I think I’ve been guilty of that one myself from time to time 😳

    And seriously. What is up with the purple hair??

    Linda: I used to be INSANELY shy when I was young. So shy that I couldn’t even order for myself at restaurants – I’d whisper what I wanted to my parents and they’d order for me. Talk about a 180…

    David: I hear ya. I don’t really mind carrying it as much as the liability of having to look after it – like if I want to work at Starbuck’s then go straight out with friends. Either I have to be wary of keeping my eye on it or put it in a coin locker and come back for it later. But all in all I still far prefer a backpack to having to rely on a car 🙂

    Miho: Thanx! Unfortunately…I’m leaving Kyoto again in just two weeks… :'(

  7. Here’s a few cents on the topics: I’ve heard that Japanese actually speak Japlish on purpose. Kids at school tease eachother if they speak properly. Thus they never actually learn to speak and they will always be Japaneeeezu speaking Engrish.

    The shyness is another thing. I personally think that a lot of Japanese assimilate hazukashiness as an excuse to avoid to interact with the world. Let’s face it, even though it can be rewarding talking to a stranger and make new friends, every time you walk up to someone you don’t know to start a conversation you’re actually putting yourself out there. You risk being shot down, embarassed, coldshouldered or a number of other things that really doesn’t involve any serious risk of physical or mental injury. Yet a lot of humans are terrified of it. Thus is’t far more easy to avoid the problem altogether and simply never talk to strangers.

    As a side note, a trick I learned last year was to never ask if they actually speak English. If you do that, they simply say “no” and look away. Just start talking and the conversation usually starts flowing.

  8. wow, you used to whisper your order to your parents?? total 180!! i think i had the opposite happen; you couldn’t get me to shut up as a kid at all, but somewhere along the way i lost that charming “word vomit” ability 😛

  9. Really??? Where are you going????

  10. Linda: I did. And I’d cry if strangers tried to talk to me 😆

    Miho: Check out this post 🙂

  11. Peder: I have heard of kids getting teased for overperforming, but not that they intentionally speak crappy English. Somehow it seems a tad far-fetched, as I’ve virtually NEVER met someone who was educated only in Japan and speaks with a proper accent, yet most of the people I know who’ve studied abroad for even half a year speak overwhelmingly better. I think it’s more a problem that the teachers themselves can’t pronounce properly, so of course the students won’t. And they focus way too hard on books rather than practical applications.

    As for avoiding contact for fear of rejection…word. Sounds like a plan. I’ll never approach anyone again 😉

  12. no way!! you’d cry? how you’ve changed 😉

  13. WOW! I Japan is the exact opposite of China! I look at what you write and am just amazed at how different things are. Chinese people don’t care at all about appearance, and often will go out in pajamas or without shirts, even at fancy restaurants (you will fit in well). They are not shy at all and often yell “hello” at you just on impulse….etc.

  14. Ok,,, I understand now. But you wanna come back to Kyoto, right? I hope I can help you somehow… If you need help, please let me know. I hope I can help you.I can understand how you feel now, coz I was same as you. Anyway I hope to see you in Kyoto before you leave.

  15. Andy, I would love to see pictures of Justin walking around shirtless in China with other shirtless people yelling at him

  16. Andy: Yep, it sure is…too bad I’ll be there in the winter tho, looks like China’s shirtlessness is NOT one of the traits I’ll be able to enjoy! 😛

    Miho: I certainly hope to make it back here, sooner rather than later 🙂

  17. Regarding briefcased salarymen filling Tokyo streets and the question why are they out there is the equivalent of LA traffic. If there’s not enough cars on the road, I swear, some government agency puts out a call to the local SoCal population no matter what time of day telling them, “hey you, get out there on the road, fill the gap in traffic, log your required miles/hours! Or else…” And the roadways are instantaneously back to bumper to bumper max capacity.

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