Ignorance is not bliss

If I have learned one thing in my first month living in Japan then that ignorance certainly is not bliss, especially when we are looking at culture. Cultures not only establish certain customs and social behaviors for the members of a particular group, but they also contain certain mechanisms on how people get accustomed to them. The latter part was what surprised and challenged me the most in my first month living in Japan.

For the first hours and days after my arrival, I was focusing on observing others’ behaviors and customs and imitating them as well as I could to blend in. At least at first, I felt like I was doing well, and I was able to live through everyday life despite a big language barrier in place: I worked out how I could eat in different restaurants, got used to public transport, and learned how university life was roughly organized. Imitating can only for so long though, as you only learn basic things you should do, but what about things you should not be doing?

In Switzerland for example, being on time is an important thing for a lot of people and when someone is late, they often either get strong nonverbal feedback or get called out openly for their behavior. Even in public spaces, let us imagine someone smoking in a bar where it is not the common custom for instance. Other people would probably directly address the smoker, express their discontent, and ask the person to abstain from smoking or to move away. That way we have a system that gives people constant feedback on their conduct, and they can adapt accordingly. This is basically what I was used to but never thought about consciously before I got exposed to a sharp contrast here in Kyoto. But what do I mean exactly, how is it different here in Japan?

Japanese culture attaches great importance to being considerate of others and Japanese people are used to limiting themselves to a big extent to achieve this. To give some of many examples: Even though there are convenience stores and vending machines everywhere, it is considered rude to drink and especially to eat whilst walking, just because it could annoy others. Other examples, like the wearing of masks at almost all times or abstaining from blowing your nose in public places, are motivated by the desire to protect others. As you can see some are more, and others less obvious habits, and therefore are of different difficulty in the acclimatization process. This gets made extra challenging by a (at least looking at it from a Swiss point of view) minimalistic cultural feedback mechanism. Japanese culture in social interactions is characterized by indirectness and even shyness and therefore people do not call out unusual behavior even if it is disturbing them. I could, in contrast to the examples back home, easily come late to social gatherings for the rest of my stay or smoke (which is funnily enough legal in restaurants but forbidden outside but that is another story entirely) almost everywhere as I please and would not get addressed by anyone and I do not think anybody would give me even a look. Well, that is not entirely true, one of the other foreigners might.

This exercised quietness by Japanese people does not mean that they do not care, though. From conversations with friends from Kyoto, I can assure you that they judge at least as much as we do, and thus your behavior has a big impact on how you are perceived before you even start a conversation with someone. The difference with Switzerland is the fact that you can never be entirely certain what they think about you and your conduct. This is not only a difficulty that foreigners see themselves confronted with, but natives also themselves often cannot say how others feel about them and stay distant from most people.

For me, this has been a challenging but interesting experience. I think it teaches me to pay attention to the little subtleties of social interactions and to consider others’ perspectives on my behavior more often because Ignorance truly does not be bliss if you want to integrate yourself.

Luca Schmid

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