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.