A Month in Japan: My Experiences and Observations Part I

A traveler without observation is a bird without wings.

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For this blog, I just ramble about some observations and experiences of mine. This should have actually been written about two weeks ago, but what the heck! (Sorry for the lack of images.)

In the Host Home

Working, Studying, and Free Time

Free time for most people in Japan isn’t necessarily a rare case, but it is not a first priority either, especially for students and 主婦 (shufu; housewives). Students mostly spend their days studying, and I mean MOST of their days studying, even on any holiday or breaks they might have. It is a number one priority. Sample conversation with my host dad:

“What did you do today?”

“I wrote, drew . . .”

“Study?”

Pause. “Yes?”

“Oh, good good!”

Some junior high students have to take exams simply to enter high school. Senior students are even more diligent when it comes to studying because of college entrance exams. Unlike how students in America can take the SAT several times in one year, students in Japan can only take a college entrance exam once a year. If they happen to be involved in a club, especially a sports club, they definitely have very little free time. (Most senior students quit sports clubs in order to focus more on studying.) However, though they mostly spend their time in their room with their noses in their books, they do make some time to go out and hang with their friends, whether it’s going out to grab some ice cream, shopping, karaoke, or staying home and to watch a movie. The first few days I was with my host family, I had so much free time I didn’t know what to do with. I was up before most of the people and the family and had no clue what to do with myself. So one day, I asked my host mother what she did during her free time. “I don’t have free time,” she said almost immediately. But it makes sense. My host mother is constantly cooking, sewing, cleaning, driving Harumichi to classes and activities, and working. However, she sometimes set some time aside to watch a movie with the family or play with Harumichi.

Same Dishes

Unlike most people in America, here in Japan, families basically have assigned dishes to each member of the family. They have their own cups, their own chopsticks, their own bowls, etc, and each person uses the same said things every day. (When I first arrived at my host family’s home, they gave me new heart-shaped chopsticks and a Toyo Eiwa drinking cup.)

Different Taste Tolerance Levels

American and Japanese tastes differ greatly, and I mean greatly. Being an American and being used to high sugar and salt contents, it was a surprise to me when I came to Japan and ate Japanese desserts. My host mother would tell me that something was too salty for her, but I would say that I could barely taste the salt. When she said something was too sweet for her, I’d tell her it wasn’t sweet at all. After hearing the same from other native Japanese, I realized that some Japanese people have very, very sensitive tastes and that I had strong tolerance for sugary and salty goods. Some Japanese would not be able to handle American sweets or snacks because they are so salty and so filled with sugar; too strong for them.

Counting With Fingers

Japanese people count a little differently from Americans. I first noticed this when my host mother kept pointing to her palm when she said the number “6.” There are two ways of counting with fingers that I know from japan: 1) they start with their palm open and bring their fingers down when counting, but when they get to five (when all their fingers are down), they raise them again until they get to 10. However, because having their thumb down indicates both a one and a nine, they have a modern method. 2) They will count regularly for the first 5 numbers by raising their fingers, but when they reach 6 and beyond, they add fingers with the other hand by resting them in the palm of the other hand (if that makes any sense. I guess this video should help):

Hand Gestures

There are different ways of gesturing for someone to “Come here.” In America, we wave our hands towards us almost as though we are doing it to fan ourselves. In Japan, however, they do it a little differently. Imagine you are trying to shoo someone away and you flick your hand away from yourself. Well, in Japan to call someone over, they do the same thing, but instead of flicking their hand away from themselves, they wave it towards themselves. Also in America, when a bad smell hits our nose, we wave our hand across our nose. But in Japan, they wave their hand across their nose not just because something smells bad, but because they may be embarrassed or may have made a mistake (when talking) or just simply don’t agree with something. Another thing I noticed is that some Japanese point to things with their middle finger when they are reading something or if something is very, very (and I mean very) close to them. (I thought I was being flipped off a few times XD.)

Talking in the Third Person

It’s not narcissism, I promise, but Japanese people talk about themselves in the third person. Why? I’m not completely sure. However, though they have the word “you (anata)” in their language, they rarely use it. So instead of saying, “You are beautiful,” they will say, “[Name] is beautiful.” And when they refer to themselves saying, “I am beautiful,” they will say their own name like, “[Their Name] is beautiful.” (Side fact: when referring to animals, Americans use “he” and “she” because we give them names. However, in Japan, they always refer to them as “it.”)

Hitting

Hitting is actually a good thing here in Japan. And by hitting, I mean love taps of course. But in truth, to my eyes, they are more like deadly smacks! (I mean, they cock their hands back and let loose, leaving a loud echo nearly every time they smack someone.) Most of the time when they are hitting one another, it is a show of affection. Well, at least sometimes. Nearly every day, I see my host siblings hit their mother, whether slapping her on the shoulder, on the leg, or on the butt. They do it mostly if a joke has been said or if there was a “duh” moment. However, sometimes if you are doing something wrong such as laying your head on the table, they hit one another on the head, basically telling them to act right, but they really never hit discipline wise (unless that was discipline). It took me a while to get used to this because hitting a parent in my household would be considered taboo (unless it really was a simple love tap.)

Healthy Living

From day one, my host family made it clear that they were a “healthy” family, and most Japanese families are (even though most of the healthy stuff are the most expensive). However, my host family is sooo healthy, they don’t even have a TV, not that I’m complaining. (I didn’t watch TV that much in America unless I was binge watching something. I mean, it took me about 4 days to notice that my host family didn’t have a TV.) When it comes to meals, my host mother is always aiming for low calories and plenty – and I mean plenty – of vegetables. When I started drinking the soup from my ramen, my host mother freaked out and told I didn’t have to drink it. Most of the time, only men drank the soup from the ramen (or any noodle dish), but women didn’t because of its high calories. It may be a custom in Japan as well, but they do not eat dessert either, at least after dinner. If they have any time for dessert, even ice cream (though they call it soft cream), it will be between lunch and dinner. And sometimes, their dessert will be healthy. (One time, a Japanese family gave me peaches as a dessert.)

San, Chan, and Kun

As some may know, Japanese culture is a pretty respectful one. One time, I accidently addressed my host mother as “Reiko-chan.” After laughing at me for little bit with Yuchi, she explained this to me: When addressing someone who is older than you, you add “san” at the end of their name (most of the time, their last name). If they are the same age or younger, you add “chan” for girls and “kun” for boys. Sometimes, others will simply add “chan” at the end of a name if they are well acquainted with you or using it as a nick name. (The girls at my school nicknamed me “Adochan” and “Ana.”)

Small Chat

Japanese people LOVE small chat. It is a very important part of their daily lives, especially since some families don’t see each other until dinner time or so. And the chat can be about anything: “Oh, look how pretty the sky is today” or “This is some really good fish” or “What did you do today?”

(One thing I’ve noticed: every day at least once in any of my conversations, I always hear someone say how something is expensive, whether it’s food, pencils, pens, clothes, etc.)

Simple Table Manners

The Japanese table manners are simple but can seem a little strict to some. Normally when the food is placed out, someone (either the head of the household or the cook) will say, “Douzo,” which basically means “Please (eat).” Before eating any meal (and sometimes before drinking anything), Japanese will say, “Itadakimasu,” which is basically a prayer, thanking the cook for their hard work in making the food or simply for thanking for food. And after that is said, the cook or the head of the household will respond with, “Hai,” or yes. And once the meal is complete, everyone says, “Gochisousamadeshita” or “Gochisousama” for short, which basically means “Thank you for the great food.”

During meal times, however, it is considered taboo to place your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice due to the fact that this action is done at funerals. Also, it is bad manners to put your elbows or head on the table. (Yuchi does this so many times, and Reiko-san hits her head nearly every time she does it XD.)

School

Chatting During Class

It amazes me how teachers don’t go crazy when they are being talked over. Before coming to Japan, I thought the classroom during lectures would be silent, everyone taking notes peacefully. Boy, was I wrong. In nearly all of my classes, students TALK to one another during the teachers’ lectures, and I mean full blown conversations. I don’t even know how the teachers can get a lesson across. Even when the teacher is giving announcements, they talk to one another, so I have no idea how they know when certain events happen.

However, the funny thing about that is, when a student is called on during class, they suddenly turn really, really, REALLY shy, and their voice doesn’t move beyond a whisper. I have NO CLUE how a classroom of 40 can even hear or comprehend what the student is saying. (And it’s funny to me because when other girls are called on in my host school, their voices don’t move beyond a whisper, and the teachers don’t bat an eye; however, when I’m called on, the teacher tells me to speak to a point where everyone can hear when I’m already the loudest person in the room!)

Materials

Japanese students love cute things, and I mean LOVE cute things. (Every day, you will hear at least ten people say “Kawaii (Cute)!”) They are especially fond of things like Disney, Star Wars, or any other American cartoon. They even love Snoopy! (Not the Peanuts, but Snoopy. If you ask a Japanese student if they love the “Peanuts,” they will not know what you are talking about, but if you ask them if they love Snoopy, they will go ballistic.)

Some materials they have that are different from America are their one pocket folders. They are also closed on two sides of the folder, so it doesn’t necessarily open like a book. Normally, these flexible, plastic folders are somewhat transparent with a cartoon character on the front. And unlike America, where we have three-ringed binders and three holes in our lined paper, Japanese use A4 paper, which is slightly longer, so their lined paper has over 20 holes in it. And as you guessed, their binders have over 20 rings.

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Example of a Japanese folder and notebook paper

Also, 0.5 lead pencils are commonly used amongst students due to the intricate strokes they need to do when writing kanji. And what some of you may already know, Japanese measure things in centimeters, kilograms, and Celsius. (Japanese people are so short that, when I had to go shopping for my school shoes, my feet were measured to be between 25 and 26 cm, which are men sizes.)

Longer Passing Periods

In American schools, or at least my school, school starts at 8:20 am and ends at 2:55 pm, and we are given 5 minute passing periods and 30 minute lunches. However, in Japan, school starts at around 8:10 am and ends at around 3:30 pm, and students are given 10 minute passing periods with 45 minute lunches.

Classroom Transitions

In America, most students continuously look at the clock, gathering their things before the bell even rings. And as soon as it does, they dart out of the classroom. However, in Japan, once that bell rings, no one bats an eye. They remain in their seats as the teacher still continues to teach, sometimes, 5 minutes after the bell had rung.

When classes are over in America, the students will grab their books, go to their locker, and head for the next class. However, in Japan, the students stay in the same classroom and the teachers move. This is the way it is because schools want students to form better bonds with one another.

Since teachers move to different classrooms, they often carry a basket with them, which holds the materials they need to teach for their subject. However, when the students do move classes, it’s normally for things like art, computer lab, home economics, or PE, but if it’s a normal class, the students are allowed to carry their bags with them. In America, this is forbidden; we might be carrying guns.

During the 10 minute passing periods, students move their desks into clutters and chat up a storm. They go to other homeroom classes and talk with other students. Some even eat their lunches before it is even time for lunch. But as soon as that warning bell rings, everyone stops everything and scatters, immediately moving their desks back to normal, erasing the chalkboard, and returning to their homeroom class, preparing for the next lesson.

Clubs

There are so many clubs to choose from. There’s basketball club, art club, tea ceremony club, archery club, dance club, cooking club, movie making club, and so much more. However, with all of that said, each student can only have ONE club, especially if it’s a sports club. Also, it is REQUIRED that each student joins a club. Nonetheless, not all clubs happen every single day. Most of the time, a club only occurs once a week.

Sports clubs can be so serious and even deadly (exaggeration of course). Students in sports club practice in the morning, after school until 5 or 6 most of the time, and sometimes even after lunch. When I joined basketball club, I had to seriously reconsider my decision because on a Friday or Saturday, the girls were having an all-day practice, which was from 9 am to 4 pm. O_O Yes, it was a 7 HOUR PRACTICE! And sometimes, they even competed in games on Sundays. Basically if you join a sports club, half your days will be dedicated to that sport.

End of part I. (Abrupt ending; yes, i know.)

What are your thoughts? Comment if you so choose! …_〆(゚▽゚*)

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