Living in Japan (or really any new culture) has a way of changing you. At first, everything about your environment might feel unfamiliar and strange. But with time what can become stranger is seeing all the ways that the new culture has influenced your way of communicating, interacting, and living – even your simple daily habits like sleeping.
This process of adapting to a new cultural environment is natural and even a healthy part of adjusting to a new country. Learning different cultural practices and habits allows you to survive and adapt to what once felt foreign and unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Over time, you find ways to exist comfortably without such frequent stress and anxiety.
Japan has a reputation as an especially difficult country for foreigners to “infiltrate.” (Some might say it is even impossible.) From my experience in Japan, I noticed that many non-Japanese living in Japan become preoccupied with searching for signs that they (and other foreigners) have adapted to the environment. There is a gauntlet of questions that I often face from other foreigners when I meet them in Japan:
Are you living in Japan or just visiting?
How long have you been in Japan?
Do you speak Japanese? How much?
Do you work in Japan? What kind of work? Are you teaching English?
Do you have a Japanese boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife?
This preoccupation by expats with measuring the “Japanese-ness” of other foreigners (including oneself) might explain the impressive number of “You know you’ve been in Japan too long when..” lists that already exist on the internet. Here is a sampling of those lists (along with a few of my own items).
You know you’ve been in Japan too long when…
…you’re making the peace sign in all your Facebook photos.
…you bow even on the phone.
This does happen in Japan. It is similar to nodding when you are talking on your phone. Yes, I do realize the other person cannot see me. That does not keep me from smiling or gesturing or communicating in my normal way.
…the characters hanging off your phone weigh more than the phone itself.
This one is a bit dated. The current trend seems to be smartphone cases, ranging from the practical to the truly fantastic, like this have-to-see-it-to-believe-it ice cream shaped “IcePhone” case. (Although apparently users complained that the case is very very heavy.)
…you apologize at least three times in every conversation.
That’s because there are just so many ways to apologize!! Some languages might have colorful swear words. Japanese has a colorful range of apologies ranging from a simple “I’m sorry” to much more elaborate apologies. When I first moved to Japan, I was never quite sure which apology to use, so sometimes I just used every apology I could think of strung together – I’m sorry. Excuse me. Pardon me. Deeply sorry. My regrets. Please forgive me – in the hopes that at least one of the apologies would be appropriate.
One episode stands out in my mind: the time I did not pay my water bill for 4 months because I did not carefully read my mail. Amazingly the city did not cut off my water. I realized my mistake the day I received a neon orange notice in the mail and took it to my friend, since it looked important. She told me that it was a notice from the city that unless I paid my water bill that week, they would terminate my water service. I immediately went to the city office to pay my bills… and apologize. BUT HOW? A simple “I’m sorry” did not seem like enough. I whipped out the most formal and apologetic phrase I could muster. Fortunately the person was nice and I got away with just a stern look.
…you start thinking canned coffee actually tastes good.
Canned coffee is not great, but you should try it if you are in Japan. It tastes best slurped down, while standing beside the vending machine.
…you wait for the first day of summer to wear short sleeve shirts.
Okay, the thing is that Japan is HOT. Like really hot. But people in Japan seem to have a certain sense of what clothes are appropriate for the season (regardless of what the weather is actually doing). So you see people wearing vests and flannel shirts in September, even though it is still 80 degrees outside. Because…it’s autumn, right? I tried to be appropriate and not bust out my tank tops too early. But it was tough. And even in the summer, I kept wearing tights because it seemed like the thing to do.
…you see a non-Japanese on the train and think, “Wow! It’s a foreigner!”
I am embarrassed to say how often this happens to me. I get especially excited when I see another foreign woman with a Japanese guy. (It is a relatively rare pairing in Japan.) And then Kosuke says to me, “Um…Jessy. Just look in the mirror.” Oh. right.
And now the Japanese perspective: You know you have been in America too long when…
Reading these lists, you can understand the experience of foreigners trying to fit themselves into the cultural environment of Japan. But what about Japanese? How do Japanese feel coming to the United States? Reading similar jokes written from the Japanese perspective offers excellent insight into the cultural differences looking the other way. Here are a few “You know you have been in America too long when…” written by Japanese people living in the States.
You know you’ve been in American too long when…
you blow your nose in public.
Sniffling seems to be the preferred method in Japan.
when you are praised, you say “thanks.”
A proper response in Japan is to deflect the compliment – no no.
you don’t carry an umbrella.
Carrying an umbrella is a big deal in Japan. People carry an umbrella to protect against rain and snow. And people also carry umbrellas to protect against the sun. That basically means that no matter the weather – rain or shine – you better have an umbrella with you. Umbrellas are hugely plentiful in Japan. You can buy one at the 100 yen (= $1) store for just a dollar. So if you forget your umbrella and it starts raining, you can easily buy a disposable one for the day. At the end of my year in Japan, I accumulated a collection of 8 umbrellas from buying so many disposable umbrellas when I forgot my own.
when your skirt to pants ratio becomes 1:4.
Well, maybe just for women. Skirts and dresses are more common in Japan, than the United States. If you are looking for some cute non-pant options, maybe try clothes shopping in Japan!
you begin to think you have not completely brushed your teeth until you floss.
Americans have a bit of a reputation in Japan for being obsessed with dental health. The first time I lived in Japan, my host sister had never seen floss before. I have impressed my Japanese friends with my amazing collection of unfamiliar dental devices including a tongue scraper and gum massager.
Thanks for reading! Have you ever lived abroad? How did you adjust to the culture? Share your comments below.