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What I’ve learnt while living in Japan

Elena Guild

When I think about my life, I’m constantly amazed at the fact that I live in Tokyo. Tokyo is an incredibly vibrant and historic city, and I am somehow lucky enough to have the opportunity to live there and experience the abundant culture firsthand. Japanese ideals are very different to those in the West, which gives me a whole new perspective. I’ve learnt so many unexpected things and have so much more to discover in this incredible city I now call home! These are a couple of interesting elements of Japanese culture I’ve learnt about while living in Tokyo.

1. Exclusivity

Japanese society is world-renowned for being very enclosed and private. Even foreigners who take Japanese partners struggle to be fully assimilated. Although Japanese people are welcoming to travelers, they don’t believe outsiders can truly adapt to fit the Japanese goals, and with the language barrier it can be tremendously difficult to blend into Japanese society.

2. Expatriate community in Japan

Since foreigners are rarely accepted into Japanese communities, expats have formed their own tight-knit groups, mainly residing in the areas of Hiroo (広尾) and Roppongi (六本木). Unlike the stable Japanese community, the foreign one is constantly shifting with perpetual arrivals and departures of expats. Foreigners typically stay in Japan for 3 or 4 years, just long enough to become immersed in the Japanese culture and begin to gain a slight understanding of Japanese ambitions. It seems like everyone who lives in Tokyo absolutely adores it. There is never a dull moment in such a dynamic and organized city and most expats are sad to leave the beautiful city.

3. Perfection in Japanese society

One crucial principle of Japanese society is striving for order and harmony. It is so vital it could be considered the foundation on which the society and culture are built upon--at least in my opinion. Tokyo is one of the world’s cleanest cities, while also being the most populated with 38 million inhabitants. The Japanese subway system underscores this cleanliness and also incorporates an element of peaceful silence. In Tokyo, it is considered disruptive and disrespectful to talk on the train as this disturbs others--it is so silent you could hear a pin drop. The subway must also always be perfectly on time. If it is a minute late, it is considered an insult and a public apology must be made. I found this insistence on perfect order so different to that of the Western culture and society I was used to. It shocked me at first, but after having lived there for two years the constant perfection of Tokyo has been drilled into me and it’s wonderful! It’s refreshing to be constantly on time and enjoy subway rides in peace and quiet. 

4. Mastery of craft

Perfection and mastery are intertwined and are both important to Japanese nationals. For instance, Japanese students are required to study English for at least 6 years at school. Japanese schools are rigorous and thorough, giving the impression that most Japanese people would be able to converse in English at the very least. However, this is not the case. If a question were to be asked to a Japanese person in English, they would not respond and feign confusion. This is not to be rude. On the contrary, the Japanese seem to me to be some of the most polite and respectful people in the world. If they do not speak English it is because they do not believe they have mastered the language, therefore do not attempt to speak or practice it. This mentality is different to the Western one that encourages the practice of skills that have yet to be perfected.

5. Quality ALWAYS trumps quantity

In ancient Japanese culture, it is believed that if you spend your whole life making one unique bowl, it is much more valuable than making 10 a day or mass producing. This is very different from the new mentality which has spread all over the world promoting more, more, more! There is a pizza restaurant in the Azabu-Juban (麻布十番) area of Tokyo with a menu sporting only two simple pizzas. Although there is not much choice or variety, the pizzas are absolutely mouth-watering. The chef has spent his whole life trying to replicate the best Italian pizza, and using the incredible Japanese eye for attention to detail, he was able to do so. Because the quality of his food is so delicious, he will be revered and respected in Japanese society. He is not a business tycoon, but will be regarded with the same level of respect because he has placed the importance of quality over quantity and has been able to master his art.

Tokyo continues to amaze me after two years of having lived there. Although the society is adapting and incorporating technology and modern amenities into the culture, it has still managed to retain ancient values, making it incredibly diverse. I absolutely love living in Tokyo and never want to leave!

Contributed by Chloé Temsamani, who is a sophomore at Choate Rosemary Hall.