Everyone imagines life in Japan to be different, but what does it actually look like once you’ve arrived and settled in? People from the West often brace themselves for massive culture shocks, but what about expats from Asia who chose to come to Japan?
This time around, we talked to people from China, Korea, Taiwan, and India and asked them to share their experiences about their most shocking cultural encounters in Japan. What they told us is fascinating – often positively surprising, sometimes a genuine shock!
Discovering similarities and differences between cultures is one of the biggest adventures when going to another country, so let’s dive right in!
※The following article is based on the interview and opinion of individuals and their experiences.
No Scrubbing in the Bath?!
“One thing that I noticed is that people don’t really scrub themselves when they bathe. In Korea, we always bring a washcloth with us or something when we go to a public bath. They’re even sold there directly, and masseurs are employed for that as well. Properly scrubbing yourself down makes you feel all fresh and clean!”
Much like Japan, Korea has a culture of public bathhouses called mogyoktang. After a refreshing soak, massage therapists await both men and women to scrub them down – it’s an inherent part of the experience. In Japan, you’ll find places like this from time to time, but they’re not nearly as common as in Korea.
I Have to Arrange My Shoes After Taking Them Off?
It’s well-known that Japan has a custom of taking one’s shoes off before entering a house. Arranging said shoes neatly is part of this, having them point towards the entrance.
“In Korea, you take your shoes off and just leave them as is. Most people probably don’t mind if a couple of shoes are scattered over the entrance area, but of course, that varies by individual, right? When I went to school, even the shoebox area was like a sea of scattered shoes (laughs) I don’t know how it is done nowadays, though.”
If you do it the Japanese way while in Korea and arrange your shoes to point towards the exit, it can be seen as a subtle message that you don’t plan to stay long and want to go home quickly. That’s how a courteous gesture can turn into a rude misstep.
There Are No Spicy Things in Japan!
South Korea is famous for its wonderfully spicy cuisine, such as kimchi and a stew called jjigae. People from Korea grow up with hot dishes and often miss them dearly when coming to Japan.
“The thing that I really miss since coming to Japan is spicy food. Even if a dish is labeled as ‘spicy’ here, it really isn’t hot at all! (laughs) I will never stop wondering about what is seen as ‘spicy’ here in Japan.”
Indeed, spiciness is something that seems to be experienced entirely different by Japanese and Korean people. In Korea, you grow up with hot food and thus are a lot more used to it, while Japanese people might struggle with a dish that is “mild” for someone from Korea. If your Korean buddy says “It’s not spicy at all,” you may still want to eat carefully!
Japan’s Breakfast is Simple...
“A breakfast in China includes nikuman, fried bread, (steamed buns with meat), boiled dumplings, wonton, rice porridge, fried rice, and so on. For example, there are almost 20 different kinds of nikuman!”
A breakfast in Japan typically consists of rice, miso soup, grilled fish, nattō, and roasted nori (laver). Recently, a lot of Japanese people also enjoy the bread and coffee version. Compared to the described Chinese breakfast, it does seem a lot simpler.
There’s another aspect – it seems that breakfast in China isn’t usually eaten at home.
“In China, breakfast is generally eaten at restaurants, which open early in the morning. Plenty of people also buy food at street vendors and enjoy it while walking. Of course, that varies by region, but there are also those who drink rice porridge with a straw on their way to work. (laughs)”
Waste Separation is Complicated!
While there are regional differences, Japan generally separates its waste by “burnable,” “non-burnable,” and “recyclable.”
“I don’t think I ever separated waste while I lived in China. Here, it’s taken very seriously and there are many categories.”
Recently, there seem to even more such categories, but the person we talked to has their own way of thinking: “Waste separation is done at the garbage collection service, so I don’t want to take away the job of the people working there.”
Raw Vegetables Are So Delicious!
“Ever since I came to Japan, I stared to a lot of salads. They’re so good! Vegetables taste completely different here.”
The Chinese woman we interviewed told us how much she loves the taste of vegetables in Japan. The food here seems to be all safe and secure.
Japanese Stations Don’t Have Enough Platform Screen Doors!
“In Japan, it seems there are a number of train delays because of accidents involving people. And still, a lot of stations don’t have platform screen doors to prevent accidents. While they seem to get more common throughout Japan, there are still less than in Taiwan.”
Taiwan’s subway has been getting platform screening doors since 2005 and is planned to have them at every single station by 2018. Within Asia, Singapore and Bangkok already boast a platform screen door rate of 100% in their subways. Japan seems to lag behind in regard to this.
Impressed by Clean Toilets!
“Japanese toilets really are clean. They’re convenient and comfortable, with the lid opening and closing automatically. There’s also enough room to do one’s makeup. These kinds of toilets are rare in Taiwan. I was especially surprised when I saw a toilet that even had a hair iron!”
Japanese toilets enjoy a global reputation of being rather amazing. From offering various functions (bottom cleaning, anyone?) to impeccable cleanness, it’s an aspect of Japan that a lot of people enjoy. Heated toilet seats are no longer a luxury but become commonplace all over the country.
Flawless Appearance - Even in Summer!
“When it’s hot in Taiwan, even business people wear casual clothes. Plenty of people do without their suit, and especially women choose to be barefoot instead of wearing stockings or socks. In Japan, the men wear a suit and tie, while women never seem to lose their stockings, even during summer! I feel like a flawless appearance, no matter how hot it is, is a Japanese virtue.”
Taiwan’s summer is hotter and longer than Japan’s, so that might be an explanation for the different outfits. On the other hand, in Taiwan seems to have the interesting trend of being barefoot in sandals even during fall and winter, topped with a thick coat or down jacket.
Japan’s Curry is Not Actual Curry!
Interestingly enough, curry is a staple dish in Japanese homes and the entire nation seems to be thoroughly in love with it. However, Indian people do not feel the love quite as much,
“Japanese curry is not even hot. There are no spices in it, so you cannot go ahead and call it curry. Indian curry is made with all sorts of different spices, but Japanese curry is simply roux or curry powder, right? To me, curry is an entirely different kind of food.
Spices are absolutely indispensable for Indian cuisine. The famous spice blend garam masala is used for various iconic dishes, including curry. Japan’s curry actually comes from Europe and thus has a milder taste adapted to a different palate, using roux instead of spices. For Indian people, a curry without any spices might seem unthinkable.
Venturing into a culture different from one’s own always is a treasure trove full of surprises, some great, others...questionable. In any case, there’s always something new to learn and to discover, sure to open up one’s horizon! Getting used to Japan may have its hurdles, but it’s a fun experience all around!
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.
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