Japanese people are human too

Recently I moved back to Belgium after having spent a year in Japan. People often ask me about my experiences in Japan. One of the questions that I get asked the most, is “Did you get to know any Japanese people?” Quoted out of context like this, the question may seem fairly innocent. Although the fact that people feel the need to ask this, knowing that I have just spent a year living there, could be the first clue that there is a little more to this question than meets the eye. The idea behind the question becomes even more apparent when considering people’s reactions to my answer. They seem surprised when I tell them that, yes, I did manage to acquaint myself with a few Japanese people. In fact, in my experience Japanese people were warm, open and sociable; some of them were even extroverted. I have made some wonderful friends while I was there. “Gasp! Horror! Shock! You mean to say Japanese people are human too?!” That’s exactly what I mean.

Belgian people (and I think Westerners in general) hold many stereotypical beliefs about Japan. One of them is that Japanese people are shy, introverted and even cold. Perhaps a little like robots. Where does this idea come from? Allow me to illustrate with a little anecdote.

I vividly remember footage from right after the Tōhoku disaster. A man is looking out over the wreckage of his town. He has just lost everything. With a flat voice he tells his story to the camera. He gazes into the distance while talking. There are no tears rolling down his cheeks. Afterwards, a Belgian talk show host comments on the footage. “How can Japanese people be so cold? Don’t they feel anything when witnessing such devastation?”

What the talk show host doesn’t realize, is that he is being confronted with a cultural difference. I think there is no culture quite as different as the Japanese culture (as I have argued before). The way people interact and express emotion is culturally defined. In Japan, it is considered childish to openly show your emotions. Self control shows strength of character. That doesn’t mean there is no emotion, or that it is not clearly visible to the trained (i.e. Japanese) eye. But to Westerners these more subdued expressions of emotion come across as cold.

Another reason for the idea of Japanese people as being cold or distant, is that some Japanese tend to freeze up when being addressed in English by foreigners. Many Japanese people feel insecure about their English skills, even when they can actually manage pretty well. Knowing the language is the key to truly unlocking a culture, especially in Japan.

If all my ranting up to this point still hasn’t convinced you that there are, in fact, outgoing and sociable people in Japan, I will make a final effort to convince you by submitting the picture below. During a trip in Kyoto, me and my two fellow gaijin companions were ‘ambushed’ by an elated Japanese family. They started talking to us and insisted that we take a picture together. They were joking, laughing and having lots of fun. It totally made my day.

gaijin with elated japanese family in kyoto temple

A visiting friend from Belgium posing with our new Japanese friends. Can you spot the gaijin? ^_^

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21 thoughts on “Japanese people are human too

  1. Pingback: Outgoing Japanese people | The Japans

  2. Pingback: Japanese pedestrian crossings | The Japans

  3. One thing that I find is that many Japanese say their emotions rather than showing them. For example, if they’re eating something that they like, they will almost always say “oishii” or “umai.” My wife asks me why I don’t say that when I eat something good. It’s just not something I did in Canada. And Japanese people are constantly saying “atsui,” “samui,” and “nemui.” I don’t constantly tell people “I’m sleepy.” That sounds childish to me. But adults do it all the time in Japan.

    • That’s a very good observation. As I read it, I immediately got flashbacks so Japanese adults puffing the word ‘atsui’ in summer. You hear it everywhere. It sounds so funny ^_^ I always have to make a real effort to not burst out laughing when I hear it.

  4. Well said. I can say that I’ve run into the same thing myself. There are a loooooooooot of stereotypes about Japan, eh? Like that it’s some weird, confusing place that can’t be understood. But that’s totally untrue.

    • Yeah, I am also amazed by the amount of stereotypes that exist about Japan. But to tell you the truth, if I look at how Belgian media portray Japan, I can’t blame people for holding such strange beliefs ^_^

    • True, it’s very Japanese. I also love the little child being carried in a piece of cloth on someone’s back. This way of transporting babies is very Japanese. And Japanese babies and small children are the cutest I have ever seen!

  5. Ah, the misunderstood Japanese. Yes, it’s a burning issue, really. Yes, by western cultural standards, they may seem aloof and stand-offish. But that is a profound misconception. They are kind, charitable – to a fault – and very compassionate. Yes, they keep their emotions in check as you rightly point out and, just as correctly, they have no lack of emotion underneath. What many westerners do not do is look people in the eye. Oh, they make eye contact but they don’t really ‘read’ people’s eyes. And, as the old saying goes, they truly are the window to the soul. Not that I believe in souls as such but our eyes shine with our inner light. And most Japanese I have met have a pretty bright light burning there. And while we Aussies are reputed to be dreadful drinkers, I have met so many Japanese mates who love a cold one on a warm day (or any other variation thereof). As always we should never allow preconceptions to colour our judgments. Their bathrooms may be small but they are still great people. Have a wonderful day.

  6. There’s a third reason, which is somewhat interesting in my experience: Japanese people tend to presume that most Westerners they encounter are American.

    Several times, I’ve had this conversation:
    “Amerikajin desu ka?”
    “Iie, Igirusu kara desu.”
    “OHHH! GOMEN NASAI! IGIRISUJIN DESU KA? SUGOI!”

    And lo, the transformation from idly curious to warm and friendly is complete!

    • I am ashamed to admit that a little chuckle manifested itself upon reading your comment. Although personally I have had no experience with being mistaken for an American, nor did I get the impression that Japanese people dislike Americans. In fact the attitude towards Americans in Japan seemed markedly more positive than in Europe. But it might depend on who you meet or where you live in Japan.

      I do believe that there is no culture more different from Japan than American culture. It makes for some pretty severe culture shock on both sides.

      How did you experience life in Japan, being British?

  7. Lovely photo and so many smiles 🙂
    Your friend is so much taller than everyone else! It’s like the height different between me and my mom!

    • You are right, she does look tall in this picture! It’s funny because by Belgian standards she is by no means considered tall. I hadn’t even noticed the height difference until you mentioned it. My eye is always immediately drawn to the colors: such a speck of color in the midst of grey and black toned jackets and hair.

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