This is a topic that is both as broad and case-specific as the different kinds of people that come to Japan to live, work, explore, study, and experience. There are a lot of books and websites and blogs that work on this theme and it is an interesting one. It is also one that is very personal for each person, full of sound and fury, and signifying only something to each person who is in their own experience.
For me, I have been in Japan for the most part since 1992. I spent a few years back in Canada to do my graduate studies and to try to start a life there again after my first several years here, and I lived across the country in Ishikawa prefecture. But life brought me back to Japan, and here to Kagawa. Takamatsu City has been my home since 2008, and it has been a very good place to be. It has been good for the company that my wife and I have built, and good for our youngest kids too.
There are a lot of accounts of living in Japan, and a lot of well-meaning “guides” how foreigners should behave, how they should curb their behaviours and personalities, and how they must show their never-ending respect and admiration for the mysterious ways of Japan, and how that any slight violation of etiquette may result in a cascade of shame to be visited upon them, their families, their clans, the emperor, and many generations thereof to come.
You may be told about the specific rituals required of you to enter a home, to give presents, to address others, to be ready to bow at a moment’s notice, to be hyper-aware and that at any moment you will cause cultural and emotional injury on those around you. It all seems a bit much, and your best instincts will guide you better, I think.
In the years I have lived here I have come to the conclusion that there are things you can do nothing about, and there are things you can do something about.
Here are my short lists.
Things you can do nothing about:
- You cannot stop being from where you are from. If you are not Japanese, you will always not be Japanese. This is no big deal to anyone, but it may be to you.
- You will be noticed wherever you go. Because you are visibly not “made in Japan” people will see you. This does not make you a rock star. This does not make you an “invading monster”. This does not make much of anything. People will see you, notice you, and may or may not interact with you. It is like being in your own country and seeing someone with an unusual hat. You may notice the hat. You may look at the hat. You may admire the hat. You may think, “Hey, I don’t think I would like to have such a hat myself.”
- People you meet will have no idea about how well you do or don’t speak Japanese. There may be some nervous energy in any exchange. There may be some errors or some minor trouble. There may be things you do not understand at all.
Things you can do something about:
- You can choose to enjoy the moment you are in.
- You can choose to be kind to anyone you meet anywhere.
- You can choose to smile and say hello.
- You can choose to learn a few things, even a few words in Japanese, to pave the way for a gentler exchange.
- You can choose to be patient.
- You can choose to see that people are basically the same anywhere you go. We all have the same worries and hopes. We all enjoy a really nice piece of cake.
When you come here to Kagawa, you are going to see a lot of really cool things. And this area is virtually off the map for tourists who come to Japan. Even so, there are a lot of places to go and things to do that are surprisingly very welcoming for foreign tourists. Shop keepers and restaurant owners are hardly “jaded” to seeing people from other places come to them. They may be surprised, understandably, but you will not be unwelcome either. Come in for a landing slow, let the other person take a moment to “acclimate” to you coming into their world, smile, and just be nice.
I think that really is the key to having a “successful” experience, be it long or short, in Japan. Just be nice. If you can do that, it doesn’t matter if you speak Japanese like a native or can hardly remember how to say, “Good morning” in the language. Being nice gets you pretty far here. I guess it gets you pretty far anywhere.
So, in the end, people are basically the same wherever you go.
Come on down to Kagawa! You are MOST welcome!