Back in the land of Messy, Grumpy People.

Subway people

I know it’s a bit presumptuous to have reverse culture shock after being away for only 5 and a half weeks but I think you experience things differently when you are living somewhere as opposed to holidaying–i.e. you are staying in an apartment, cleaning it, taking out the garbage, grocery shopping and not just staying in a hotel. Though I would have really liked a pool….

Anyway, it’s been a bit weird being home. I’m sure most of it can be attributed to jet lag but there are some cultural differences that spring to mind. People here seem undisciplined and self-concerned compared to the inherent order of Japanese society. Also messy and grumpy. This isn’t really much of a surprise as culturally we are conditioned to value the individual before considering our impact on society as a whole; the Japanese are conditioned differently, pretty much the exact opposite. They are taught to maintain order, avoid chaos and keep the social order intact. Children are taught from an early age that “the nail that sticks up is hammered down” so the urge to conform is pretty basic. Wherever it comes from, it makes for a more orderly and streamlined society, though I have no idea what people are thinking, they are outwardly polite. People don’t push or shove, they don’t jump the queue, they rarely honk their horns, they wait patiently to board the escalator, they make way on the sidewalk…though I guess this behaviour is partially a survival tactic in a city as large as Tokyo, otherwise chaos and anarchy would reign.

People dress more formally. I saw women in Lululemon-like outfits three times. Two of them were jogging and the other looked like she was on the way home from yoga class–based on the fact that she was carrying a yoga mat. The majority of men wear suits and women wear skirts or dresses or dressy shorts. Many kids wear uniforms and if not, they have the cutest clothes ever. Even the dogs are groomed. I know some of the formality comes from living in a larger urban centre but there is a noticeable difference to North American sartorial habits. It’s almost as if you have a responsibility to not disturb the flow by dressing like a bum. Being odd or alternative is fine (Harajuku girls come to mind) as long as you’re tidy. I noticed a similar scenario in Paris and subsequently read a book by an American living in Paris, married to a Frenchman, who was told by her husband that running to the bakery to get croissants in her sweats with her hair in a ponytail was insulting to society in general. Perhaps they have a similar expectation in Japan? I’ll have to look into it…. Also keep in mind that most households wash their clothes in cold water and dry them on a rack–even our neighbour, whose house was worth approximately $4 million, had laundry hanging daily on the deck.

In shops and restaurants they greet every single person that walks through the door. Always. Irasshaimase (welcome). When you pay for things they bow. In any place except the convenience stores and the grocery store, they walk your purchase around the counter and hand it to you, bowing. In smaller shops they walk you to the door and bow as you leave. If it’s an expensive purchase they bow until you are out of sight. Yes, I actually saw this in the Issey Mikayke boutique in Omotesando (high-end shopping area). Four shop assistants bowed until the woman disappeared around the corner two blocks away. I’m not even kidding. In department stores, they bow before they leave the floor. Bus attendants at airports and hotels bow as the bus appears and again as it drives away. I know this sounds excessive, but it is quite charming and you don’t actually realize how peaceful it is to be away from angst and strife until you are back in it. This is the country that experienced no looting or violence in the aftermath of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear incident.

I went to the 7-11 on Friday night. I said ‘Konnichiwa‘ to the clerk, mostly because I was so tired and momentarily forgot that I was not in the neighbourhood 7-11 in Tokyo where I visited every day. He looked at me like I was a complete nutter. He didn’t bow when I left….

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