Culture Shock It To Me

I used my week-long vacation from Korean class to make a trip to Japan, where I learned that Japan is the worst place to relax. Feeling the pressure to maintain the careful balance of Japanese society– to do things the Japanese way–caused enough tension to warrant another vacation to recover from my vacation (but that didn’t happen because… school). Having been to Japan once last year (for 10 weeks), I am under the impression that you must leave and come back to Japan to understand that it is a very…..unique place. That may induce neurosis.


In Japan, you must apologize for everything. When I stopped at the airport 7-11, I found myself apologizing for giving the cashier a hundred dollar bill for my three dollar purchase. In Japan this isn’t uncommon, as carrying large denominations of bills is the norm; I’ve been told that convenience store cashiers are used to it. I wasn’t sure if the slight look of panic on her face was because of the bill or who was handing over the bill. Either way, I apologized.

You must also apologize for creating a situation that would warrant an apology. My AirBnb host in Kyoto was a wonderfully sweet woman who brought me fresh fruit everyday after I’d come in from sight-seeing. After a day of hiking, I’d hopped straight in the shower. When I got back to my room, I was greeted by a flurry of bows and apologies. She was sorry for bringing me fruit while I was on the shower, and went on about how terrible she felt that the peach was discolored now. She apologized for not bringing it sooner. And then I apologized for being in the shower. The peach was still a lovely color. To this she replied, I’m sorry.

It’s no surprise that I look like this every time I go to Japan:

People even bow while they’re on the phone. It’s pointless to bow when the other party can’t even see you, but it’s the principle. When you say sumimasen or gomen nasai, there’s a bow that comes with it. It’s practically ingrained in the lexical entry.

Even the buses are polite

I’ve written about the special terror that comes with riding the bus in Korea. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I think public transportation is supposed to scare you at least a little bit. Kyoto bus-drivers are so polite it’s scary. In his low hissing voice, he warns passengers when he’s coming stopping or taking off. He apologizes for abrupt stops and announces the name of each bus stop even though the pre-recorded voice tells you several times before arrival. This pre-recorded voice also warns you when the bus is turning left or right, which is followed by ご注意ください (please be careful). After being in Korea, I didn’t know whether to think this was hilarious or incredibly pitiful. After all, this politeness slows the buses down considerably. Can you believe buses in Kyoto stop at every red light? The nerve. How will I ever get anywhere on time? I could get to my destination faster if I walked.

Public transportation is eerily quiet. No one is talking with friends, swearing/cooing at their significant other, or calling their children failures. There’s no drama to be had. I thought I would appreciate being able to hear myself think, but it just made me stress more about keeping quiet. I also became hyper-aware of what they were doing so quietly. People watching is in Japan is a bore. It’s especially difficult to people watch when everyone is watching you.

Staying under the Radar

At every turn in Japan I’m reminded that I’m a disturbance, a blockage to their well oiled and smoothly running wa machine. People stare and comment; they make extra space for me on the train that I don’t need. They struggle to remember their middle school English to tell me I’m sorry or to piece together directions that I asked for in Japanese. By making a show of accommodating me, I feel more pressured to fit in, but the more I try to do that the more impossible it seems. It just compounds the original stress. I’m not any less foreign in Korea, but no one cares if I’m trying to fit in or not. They go about their business: people don’t make extra space for me on the bus or train; every little brush of skin does not call for I’m sorry. I do not have to apologize for existing.

When people ask me how my experience in Korea differs from my experience in Japan, I must admit that despite my Japanese being light-years ahead of my Korean, I’m more comfortable in Korea (read: Seoul). I could see myself staying here for a longer period of time, a year or two. People who live in Japan for years on end baffle me. Perhaps you must let Japan settle in your bones.


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