I recently came across a blog post by an American who’d lived in Japan for several years, but who’d suddenly decided that he hated it here. Reading through his post in which he listed everything he disliked about Japan, I found myself nodding at some of the frustrations a foreigner can encounter here, from having more smokers around you than you may be used to (especially if you’re from California like me) to the odd tendency of Japanese city planners to never put trash cans where you expect them to be. As great a country as Japan is, the fact that 90% of the people here are often on the same wavelength about things can present challenges to “outsiders” (what the word gaijin actually means), which is why you can find six brands of 4.3% milkfat milk at the store but sometimes no lowfat and never any skim milk — the Japanese just love their milk as creamy as possible. So while my first response to his diatribe was to say “if he doesn’t like Japan he should probably go home,” I found could sympathize with some of his points.
On the other hand, living in a foreign country will always involve trade-offs, a fact I learned at the tender age of six when my family went to live in New Zealand for a year. For cultural reasons, the Japanese just aren’t into the vegetarian lifestyle, and it can be hard to try to live completely free of animal products unless you’re prepared to cook it all yourself. The writer mentioned that he felt pressured to drink alcohol at company parties, but in my experience ordering “oolong tea” is all the signal others need that you don’t want them to pour beer for you. Sometimes the little cultural differences can seem irreconcilable, though: when I worked for my city in the role of Coordinator for International Relations (cool job title, eh?), I was taking over for a foreigner who’d left suddenly. One of his reasons for going home, I was told, was frustration that all the tea here contained caffeine, which his religion forbade, so he couldn’t even have a cup of green tea while he worked. These days, any possible inconvenience one might feel about living in a homogenous country like Japan is totally countered by the vast store of convenience that is…the Internet. The ability to order English books from Amazon or keep my home stocked with American foods I may want to order through the Foreign Buyers’ Club make Japan almost the perfect country, for me.
(The rant in question can be seen here. Warning, it’s a long read.)
So what do you think?
Japan can seem “culturally inflexible” to outsiders. Would you like more tea?