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You Can’t Knock on Paper Doors

August 1, 2012

[Culture Spotlight: Japanese customs your travel guide won’t brief you on.]

Many of the more familiar Japanese customs are formal and rooted in tradition, but
just as many are simply unconscious habits as a response to the merging of traditional
values with a modern society. Japan has countless customs that make up the visual
shell of its culture, like bowing, removing shoes, eating with chopsticks, and sitting in
seiza (kneeling). Anyone who spends more than a day in this fascinating country will
likely observe all of these firsthand at some point, and even those who have never had
the opportunity to visit are probably familiar with that short list of things that are either
nonexistent or not particularly prominent in western culture.

Japan is a fairly recent arrival on the global scene (interaction with European powers was
nonexistent before the 1600s, and minimal until the Meiji Restoration in the mid 1800s),
and as such it makes sense that even though it has become a first world capitalist power,
it still retains much of its pre-modern flair. However, modernizing did not simply involve
stacking new western ideas on top of their old ones. As it has done so many times in the
past. Japan adapted and absorbed like it has done so many times throughout history, to
keep pace with its now expanded list of neighbors.

So how does that manifest itself in customs and habits? During my stay I picked up on a
few things that struck me as particularly foreign:

1- You may be familiar with the cliché of the Japanese tourist. I remember visiting the
Eiffel Tower in Paris and being amazed at the number of Japanese there. They would hop
off of their tour bus, pose for photos, step back on, and head to the next destination. As a
Seattle local, I have seen the same scene a couple of times around the Space Needle, and
our Ride the Duck ( tour service regularly features
a disproportionate number of Japanese passengers. What I didn’t realize is that this isn’t a
habit the Japanese develop exclusively while traveling abroad. Sure, I was there to study
Buddhism and spent most of my time living in temples, but when I went to visit icons
like Todiaji Temple in Nara I was doing it
more as a tourist than as a practicing monk.

A much more seasoned monk begging for alms at Todaiji Temple in Nara, Japan.

Yet when I arrived, I wasn’t sure who was the bigger tourist: me, or most of the locals there. I was reminded of my time in Paris exactly. As I was wandering around the base of the temple a lady in a megaphone paced by, followed by a group of a dozen or so Japanese in matching vests who then proceeded to pose for pictures with a statue, an incense altar, and one flabbergasted white kid who to this day might have mistaken it for a mugging if the crime rate weren’t so low. As it turns out, Japan features roaming flocks of Japanese tourists just like France does.

2- It is fairly common to see people walking with open umbrellas even when it’ not raining. If the weather forecast calls for rain, the umbrellas come out. It doesn’t matter that it’s not actually raining yet, and won’t be for another hour. I tried to go out one day to get some groceries, and the woman running the hostel told me to take an umbrella. I tried to explain that I was only going to be gone a few minutes, and even if it did start to rain, I’m from the Pacific Northwest and am not easily put off by that sort of thing. I’m not sure whether it was the language barrier or whether she was just insistent, but my point didn’t come across well, but by the time I left there was an umbrella in my hand, and I can’t see the situation possibly going any other way.

3- When riding an escalator, people who aren’t in a hurry stand off to one side to leave an open corridor. This may also occur in other countries, but as an American I was astounded by the very idea. So keep this in mind if you’re traveling to Japan, because as American’s we’re not trained to realize when what we’re doing is different from everyone else. It took me about a week of accidentally being a jerk before I figured it out.I guess this exists in America too, except that it has to be explicitly stated instead of being assumed as common sense, and even then we don’t follow it. Then again, from what I’ve seen of DC driving I can’t say I’m surprised (sorry, couldn’t help it.)

Case in Point

Case in point, I took this on a moving walkway at Reagan International Airport.

In Japan there isn’t a particular side. I tried to see if there was a difference by city or
some other pattern, but I couldn’t find any. So either I missed it, or it seems that someone
gets on wherever they want and everyone else just follows their lead. I want to go into
this more in a future post, because I think Japanese escalators are a fantastic metaphor
for cultural understanding, moral philosophy and general approach to life. You read that
right: I’m going to analyze those things so hard you’ll feel like you’re discussing the
Scarlet Letter in high school English again. But all in due time.

The reason for all of this (I think) is Japan’s orientation as a collectivist society (it has
also been called a conformist society, although that word has negative connotations in the United States.) Reliance on regular feedback from peers, authority figures and meteorologists is a foundation of Japanese culture, and in a society with such a high population density, it’s pretty much a necessity. The details of this deserve more space than I can give here, but the lesson to take away is to pay attention! In Japan observing your surroundings is crucial for social harmony, but no matter where you travel (or even if you’re at home) keeping your eyes open to the behavior of others will not only help you get along in your own society more smoothly, but will also key you into a lot of unique and fascinating habits that we as a species tend to develop.

A monk walking his corgi back from the grocery store in Kyoto.

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