My knowledge of Japanese culture pre-Mistletoe barely extended beyond an amateur appreciation for Japanese cuisine. Like many I love(d) American Sushi and Ramen bars, while my Japanese-American childhood friend had introduced me to the wonders of Gyoza — as well as the challenge of racing her brothers to maximize Gyoza consumption.
However beyond my limited knowledge of Japanese foods, foods that are heavily “Americanized” at that, my knowledge of Japan was quite sparse.
When I told friends back home that I was about to depart for an internship in Tokyo, they said something along the lines of the internship being a good experience for me to “work on my Japanese.”
I don’t speak any Japanese but let me explain the confusion.
I’ve been studying and speaking Mandarin for about 10 years now. And in the Midwest, United States of America, in the state of corn, beef and football the difference between Mandarin and Japanese is lost. I can’t tell you how many times I have told people growing up that I spoke Mandarin and they would beam and respond with “Konnichiwa” a mistake that after awhile I grew immune to.
The point of this is that even while I knew, or felt I knew, in coming here that Japan would be far different from China, I still was anchored by my previous experiences. I knew Japan was different from China but I still felt it would be more culturally similar to Chinese culture than American culture.
In some sense that expectation was true — many aspects of Japan reminded me of time spent in China. Large groups of people coming together for morning exercises in the parks, the mass of people on the metro, the proliferation of karaoke bars, the bright lights and bustling city centers. I also saw similarities in the smaller things; the slippers everyone wears upon entering a workspace or at home, the cute English advertising with commands like “Drink me” on a water bottle.
However, my three weeks in Japan has revealed just as many cultural differences between Japan and China as cultural similarities. A few that have stood out to me are the focus on quality over quantity and the more reserved disposition of Japanese people.
In China, in-line with the stereotype, there are a high quantity of similar cheap products to buy, products that are often flimsy and break easily. While in Japan, there is both a high quantity of food options, touristy knick-knacks and clothing options; but everything seems to made out of materials that are higher quality by several orders of magnitude, with every single product/piece of food displayed carefully.
The second large difference I have perceived between Japanese and Chinese culture is how much more reserved Japanese people are. Of course, this is not a fair comparison for me to make. I speak Mandarin at a conversationally-fluent level. Conversely, I speak Japanese in the same way some parrots speak English, spitting out a few of the same phrases they have been trained to speak “Konnichiwa” “Gomen’nasai” “Arigatōgozaimas”. But even acknowledging this crucial difference, I see only limited interaction between people talking in the metro, in the office place or even in public places and the interactions are more reserved. Of course, the same can not be said for the Shibuya’s 4 am crowd or the post-work drinking crowd. But on a whole, Japanese people seem a lot more subdued than Chinese people whom openly stare, point and shout “foreigner” at foreigners and often trying to take pictures or engage us foreigners in conversation.
These are the glaring cultural differences that I have picked up from my initial three weeks of observation on Japanese culture that I hope to build on in my next five weeks. I hope that through seeing more of Tokyo and by experiencing more of Japanese culture I will build out my understanding of Japanese culture and as a byproduct better understand the distinctions between Chinese and Japanese culture.
I also hope to extend the Japanese focus on aesthetic appearance/careful display to the organization of my room. :)