Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Culture shock

OK so I've been a bit crap on the posting front lately, I apologise profusely. Anyway I hope I can make up for it with a bit of musing.

I kept getting asked whether I had experienced much culture shock after I arrived in Japan, and to be quite honest, not really. I sometimes joke that is because I am totally uncultured, but I think its more to do with having visited and lived in a lot of different countries during my life, long enough to realise that people are basically the same wherever you go.

There are idiots and smart people, nice people and horrible people, ugly people and beautiful people, they can be open minded or closed minded, and they all eat, sleep and fart like the rest of us. They might look a bit different, and the might attach more or less importance to taking off your shoes when you enter a house, or how scandalous is it to go topless at the beach; but a smile is a smile is a smile, and a frown is a frown is a frown, and they all connect to the same feelings all over the world (and that's a proven scientific fact).

When something that seems weird to you as a fresh off the boat stranger it is almost certainly deeply banal to the locals who run into it every day, and is probably there for a reason (though not always a good reason). I think you can explain a lot of things if you think about the environment people live in. For example, Japan is a crowded country that gets very hot and humid in the summer, ideal breeding ground for disease, so what some might see as an obsession with cleanliness makes a lot of sense.

Anyway I know what you really want to hear are tales of wacky japanese eccentricity, so here are a few things that would have gobsmacked me totally if I wasn't such a cool worldly wise customer:

  • Electronic toilets. Now I know this is an easy target but I am unable to resist toilet humour! These things not only keep you warm in winter, but provide on command a jet of water to get you squeaky clean, and if you are lucky (i.e. not always), dry your nether regions down with a blast of stinky hot air. I'm telling you, you will never forget your first experience on one of these.

    Imagine what went into designing these marvels of technology. Could you get together a bunch of engineers and get them discuss with a straight face the mechanics of clagnut removal? What is the exact angle of the water jet (there are two buttons for different options here, in case you are interested, ladies), how long does it need to squirt for? With how much power? What happens if the targets gets up off the seat prematurely? What if they are on the chubby side? All these questions must have been seriously considered and field tested.

    My japanese friends thought I was rather odd to be so obsessed with electronic toilets when I first arrived, but they didn't realise that these aren't so commonplace in the rest of the world! And I am a big schoolboy still so they were partly right.

  • ATM cash machines don't work in the evening and at weekends! There is a 24 hour shop on every street corner, but you have to pay extra to get at your own money if its not during the working week! WTF?

  • Students (and staff) often roll in to work around midday and leave 11pm or midnight. It sort of makes sense to avoid the horrendous rush hour crush on the trains, but it surprised me anyway.

  • Lots of new stuff (from room decor to vacuum pumps) looks like it was designed in 1950's America.

  • Most TV programs have subtitles and captions and graphics superimposed on screen all the time. Not very funny but different.

  • Hostess bars. 'nuff said.

  • Karaoke videos. I mean its nice to watch a girl in a bikini frolicking around on the beach and conveniently pointing her chest at the camera, but it doesn't have much to do with the lyrics to American Pie. If you see a Japanese guy with an over the top video camera taking endless pictures of Big Ben or pigeons in Trafalgar square, its probably the backing video for Britney Spears' latest atrocity. Having said that I love karaoke. I have no shame.

  • Eating all the chicken. And I mean all. (Actually no I don't, feathers are still not on the menu, but gizzards, hearts, cartilage etc. is fair game.)


Anonymous said...

Actually I was just crunching chicken cartlidge today, and yesterday in fact. I've been eating the same chicken since friday night. I hope it doesn't mind.


Alex said...

Oh and another thing: Old men directing traffic with airport-style light batons when they are clearly not needed. Any road repair or delivery lorry comes equipped with at least three old men wearing blue uniforms and reflective sashes waving passing traffic past. I am convinced they have some sort of secret semaphore network so that top secret messages can be passed old man to old man across the country without anyone knowing.

Anonymous said...

Have you been checking out my blog? Sorry, nothing intersting there yet. Doesn't look as sexy as yours either.


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