Here are some things I’ve learned that simply never occurred to me before and
have learned from. As you know well, they are not ready for some of the
material yet I included it so that I could paint a fuller picture of why
these things occur.
1. Be clean!
Japan is a Buddhist / Shinto country. Japanese adapt and accept other
religions easily but are not “religious” as we like to think of religious.
This is to say that there are shrines and temples everywhere but it’s mostly
a cultural aspect and they go there on certain holidays to pray for things
like health and good fortune. They don’t go on a regular basis. This
religious aspect is important because in the Buddhist culture as in Muslim
culture cleanliness is extremely important. Unfortunately it wasn’t so for
the early Christians and they closed all of the public baths in Cordoba,
Spain when they took it over from the Muslims.
So in keeping with this culture of cleanliness, one of the most favorite
activities of the Japanese is bathing. The most favorite retreat for all
Japanese is called the “Onsen” or “hotspring.” When I first heard of the
“hotspring” I pictured a geyser that shoots out of the earth. I soon
learned that a “hotspring” was a place where they tap the water that is
heated by volcanoes and pool it to the surface. The water is very hot and
usually white in color. It is full of sulfur and is supposed to be good for
the skin. The only problem westerners have with this is that you have to
enter naked. Being so, they are usually but not always separated by gender.
When my parents came my mom wouldn’t think of it but dad had no problem.
This is not a completely western problem since Germans also have their own
version of hotsprings. I personally love them and feel so relaxed after
bathing in this hot water. The best hot springs are in areas where it snows
and they are outside. So imagine yourself sitting in a steaming hot bath
with snow all around you. It’s truly an experience.
One important point about these baths. You must shower before you get in
and not have any soap on you. This ensures that it will stay clean for
everyone. They also usually have a sauna as well so you can sweat and purge
yourself of all the impurities.
2. Take off your shoes!
When entering a Japanese house and certain sections of restaurants where you
sit on “tatami” or straw matting you must always take off your shoes. This
stems from their idea of “uchi soto” which means ouside and inside. This
idea pervades their culture and the outside is always dirty while the inside
or home is extremely clean. It never occurred to me but this idea of taking
off your shoes really makes good sense and is a custom I will continue to
practice for the rest of my life. Since we spend so much time cleaning our
homes, why would we not take off our shoes that have gone through mud and
dirt outside? I know when we get new carpets in America we always take off
our shoes to keep them clean but soon forget. Why do we forget? Do we
actually wish to make them dirty? We can find in some of the nicer homes in
America that the family does require one to take off their shoes. If we
think about it logically, we should all practice this custom.
Since Japan is an island country fish is a staple as is rice. They eat
Sushi and other healthy foods on a daily basis. Rice is eaten with almost
every meal and since it is low in nutritional value, we know why the
Japanese are smaller than westerners. Unfortunately McDonald’s and other
fast food restaurants have invaded Japan. Japanese have taken quite well to
McDonald’s and they are starting grow bigger (fatter) because they are eating
this food. One interesting aspect concerning McDonald’s is that here in
Japan, due to declining profits they have combined it with a cafe and now
have McDonald’s Cafe. The environment is that of a cafe where one can relax
and read books. They changed the menu a little bit but apparently it wasn’t
working too well because they added most of the old items back on the menu.
The drinks are served in a real glass and the food used to be put on a plate
which they stopped doing about one month ago. They also charge more for the
My personal favorite food here is hokke which is a type of cooked fish that
you eat by putting little bits of radish on it with a drop of soy sauce. My
other favorite food isn’t actually Japanese but actually Korean. It is
called “yakiniku” or cooked meat, but translated into English becomes
“Korean Barbecue.” They serve very small platters of thinly cut small
pieces of meat that you cook on a small grill in front of you. I like mine
with small bits of onion and lemon juice. It is truly fabulous! I’m sure
America has these restaurants in California and eventually it will spread
As for Japanese style fast food you have two restaurants which (I hear) can
also be found in California. These two famous restaurants are “Yoshinoya”
and “Matsuya.” The main food is a bowl of rice with grilled strips of beef
on top. I always opt for the raw egg that I must stir and put into this
“rice bowl.” In Japanese it is called “Gyuudon,” and is the main diet of
the hard working Japanese “Salaryman” or company employee. It is very cheap
costing only 2 dollars.
4. The land
Japan is mostly covered with mountains which means people must live in
crowded communities. This would cause problems for westerners since we need
our space but does not cause problems for the Japanese. In order to live in
such tight confines, the people had to learn how to resolve their
differences peacefully which ultimately became one of the main aspects of
their culture which I’ll explain below.
5. Japanese prefer harmony at all times. They have a group mentality and
must think of what is best for the group before themselves individually. We
in the west have an “independent” spirit and always think of ourselves
first. You will hear Americans claim how great this virtue is and that this
“pioneering spirit” has produced one of the greatest nations ever. The
Japanese will say that their culture is better since it promotes harmony and
therefore the royal line has gone unbroken for 2000 years. At this point I
believe a mix of the two is the best course. Being independent results in
independent thinking and finding new ways of accomplishing goals. However,
this often leads to conflict. The Japanese are reluctant to disagree with
each other and therefore are unable to come up with any truly original
Here is a true example of how conflict was avoided and is personal. I once
left my e-mail capable phone at my house and my girlfriend being silly read
it. She new she shouldn’t have but did anyway. She saw a message from
another woman asking me to meet her the next day. When I came home my
girlfriend didn’t say anything, but I could notice a slight difference in
her behavior. I asked her what was wrong and she told me “nothing.” I kept
asking throughout the evening but she kept giving me the same answer. So I
had to get a little angry to get the answer out of her. Finally she said “I
have to apologize to you, I read your mail.” Therefore without “disharmony”
she was putting pressure on me to explain myself. The e-mail she had read
was from the fiancee of my best friend who desired an English lesson that
next day. So she felt silly and now won’t do it anymore. This method of
ure on me works quite well since if I am actually in error and
do care about her, I will correct my action and we can achieve “harmony”
again without any disturbance or harsh words. I really like this system.
However, it can be bad at some times. For example at work. If your boss
tells you to do something he wants you to do he won’t say it with force such
as “do this” but will put it in like this “it would be better if you could
do this “ne.” This “ne” is important and is a particle that means “I’m
sure you already know this so I’m not telling you anything you don’t already
know. For example if I say “boy it’s cold!” I would add “ne” since I’m
sure you already know it’s cold outside. This is used much more often then
the particle “yo” which means “I’m telling you new information.” So
therefore, when the boss says this it puts pressure on you and being
Japanese you cannot disagree directly but must put it in softer terms such
as “I understand what you mean, but in my humble opinion I think this option
may be better, maybe, don’t you think so?”
The entire language is like this and using this method almost all conflict
can be successfully avoided. Sometimes “rude” foreigners start to get angry
if they disagree and in unimportant cases most Japanese will just let you do
what you want to avoid conflict unless they are “strong.”
Finally, when meeting new people, the Japanese are always trying to figure
out their status in relation to the other person. This hierarchy system is
very strong and important. The best way to figure out if you should use
extremely polite speech is discovered by exchanging business cards.
Actually, I should write all this down in more detail on my website and will
do so soon. This hierarchy “class system” isn’t unknown to the westerner.
We don’t have it so much in America, but in England class distinctions are
still very strong and can also be seen in speech if you compare “the queen’s
English” with that of the common man. Actually the Queen of England, Lords,
noblemen still look down upon those in lower classes. The Japanese never
look down and treat everyone with respect. But then all Japanese also know
their place, are extremely polite and do not desire conflict.
Like I mentioned, you’ve given me a good idea for my website and I’ll post
it on my website in a few days. I may also put it in the book I’m trying to
write. My ideas often sting my fellow Americans and I still need to soften
the tone quite a bit, but as I mentioned it’s only a draft and has a year or
two of work that needs to be done.
I hope this helps. I’ll let you know if I think of anything else.
—– Original Message —–
Sent: Friday, January 30, 2004 9:28 PM
Subject: RE: Former Student
Thank you so much for emailing back. You are so grown up and mature–I
still think of you as being in the “upper” grades of Trinity School!:) I guess
that I am showing my age now!:)
I spent some time at Saint Margaret of Cortona on Wednesday afternoon and
I had a nice conversation with your mom while I was there. We are going to
be doing a First Communion “Retreat” for the Second graders in March and I
was learning about the Religious Education program “The Good Shepherd” and gathering information for the retreat.
Matt, anything that you can share about the food, clothing, shelter,
things that the children in Japan hold in high regard or value (teachers?
education?)would be of great interest to everyone in Second grade. We
have been studying “needs” vs. “wants” and “consumers” vs. “producers” in
Social Studies. We have also been studying maps (North, South, East, West) and
> different types of landforms–hills, mountains, islands, peninsulas, etc.
> Food is important in all cultures and what types of food do the Japanese
eat that may be different or unusual to the students in America? Don’t they
> consume a lot of fish and vegetables or do they frequent the “fast-food”
establishments more often (Wendys, McDonalds)like their American counter-parts?
The Second graders participate in Computer class every Thursday and we
have an internet-connected computer in the classroom that the students would be
able to use for “educational purposes!”:) I have also made the connection,
with the students, that you are a “former” student and look at the
career you have chosen and the distances you have traveled!!! It goes to show
that you can be anything that you want to be and go where ever you choose to go
in your life!:)
Please feel free to write-anytime. Please call me Patty–I have never
been married and after hearing “Miss xxxx” every school day for the past 21
years, I like the people that I encounter outside of School to
call me “Patty!”:) Again, thank you for taking the time to correspond with the Second graders and myself!