Why ‘The Japans’ as a blog name?

When I first decided to start this blog, I spent a lot of time thinking of a good name. One thing that kept popping up in my head was ‘The Japans’.

The term comes from the novel ‘Shogun’ by James Clavell. ‘Shogun’ is the story of an English pilot, John Blackthorne, who washes up on the coast of Japan and is confronted with feudal Japan around 1600 AD. He is forced to adapt to Japanese ways and even becomes involved in the power struggle between daimyo’s Ishido and Toranaga (based on Tokugawa Ieyasu).

Shogun by James Clavell Cover

Shogun cover design

Blackthorne and his crew consistently refer to Japan as ‘The Japans’. It is a fabled island kingdom where no Englishman or Dutchman has ever set foot before. In the beginning of the book, the crew even expresses some doubts as to the existence of these mythical Japans. But soon enough they discover that The Japans are very real indeed.

I remember watching the TV mini-series as a child. When I grew older, I read the book and have reread it multiple times since. Both the TV series and the book made a big impression of me. Although the book is perhaps not 100% historically accurate, it really helped me to get a better understanding of Japanese culture and history. I was fascinated by the culture shock that Blackthorne went through. Although the book deals with feudal Japanese culture, I found that it helped deepen my understanding of modern Japanese culture as well. ‘Shogun’ played a big part in my fascination with Japan. I would therefore like to dedicate this post to the late Mr. James Clavell. Thank you for writing such a wonderful book!

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Japan in a word: ‘KY’ – ‘Unable to read the air’

I recently got the idea to do a series of posts titled ‘Japan in a word’. Japanese language is fascinating and holds many clues to cultural phenomena. I found that Japanese is rich in very specific vocabulary, more so than other languages that I have studied. When Japanese students of English attempt to literally translate these expressions and words into English, it leads to the weird and funny English that we often hear in Japan. Usually, the only way to really translate such Japanese words is by using entire sentences in English. The power and depth of meaning that is sometimes packed into a single Japanese word intrigues me. Over the course of these series, I will try to give you some examples and try to explain how they pertain to certain aspects of Japanese culture.

First up is the expression KY. You pronounce it by saying the English letters ‘K’ and ‘Y’ separately. It stands for ‘kuuki yomenai’ (空気読めない), which means ‘can’t read the air’. The expression is used for people who are not able to perceive what is appropriate in a given situation, or who are not able to pick up on subtle social clues. For really bad cases, the expression SKY is used (pronounce like the English word ‘sky’). It stands for ‘super kuuki yomenai’ (スーパー空気読めない).

Japanese sky and pine tree at Korankei gorge in Toyota City

Japanese sky and pine tree at Korankei gorge in Toyota City

The stereotypes about Japan and foreigners dictate that all foreigners are KY and that all Japanese are able to ‘read the air’. Certainly the many unspoken social rules and the indirect communication in Japan have driven many a gaijin  to desperation. But any regular reader of this blog will know that I am not a fan of stereotypes. My opinion is that a foreigner will have trouble understanding implicit social rules and cultural conventions in any foreign culture. The frustrations associated with this are an inherent part of culture shock. I do grant that the shock might be even greater in Japan, since there is no country quite so ‘different’ as Japan and there are therefore more new rules and social conventions to learn. But a Japanese person who moves to a Western country might likewise have a lot of trouble ‘reading the local air’ too.

Moreover, not all Japanese people are able to read the air, even when they are in Japan. Unlike the image that some Western media like to give of Japan, Japanese people are not mind readers and they do not share a psychic connection through which they automatically know what others expect of them. I have heard many Japanese people complain about being expected to ‘read the air’. This can especially be a problem between people of different regions. For example Osaka people are reputedly more outspoken and Kyoto people are supposed to be more indirect in their communication. So a person from Osaka who moves to Kyoto might experience some communication problems.

But all my anti-stereotypical ranting put aside, of course the expression KY does illustrate something about Japanese culture. Generally speaking, Japanese people are more aware of their surroundings and of the people they interact with than Westerners. Attention to detail and thoughtfulness towards others are qualities that are more appreciated and encouraged in Japan than in the West. It is one of the reasons why highly sensitive persons, who naturally gravitate more towards those qualities, tend to feel more comfortable in Japan than in Western cultures.

When I was in Japan, I tried to ‘read the air’ as best as I could. I tried to be considerate and follow social conventions as much as possible. I even had the idea that I wasn’t doing too bad a job of it. But as I continue to learn more about Japanese culture, I remember more and more situations in which it turns that I, inadvertently, was behaving very KY. Fortunately (or unfortunately according to some), foreigners are not held to the same standards as Japanese people and as long as you are clearly doing your best, most of your gaijin KY behaviour will be excused. So don’t let a fear of being KY hold you back from getting to know this wonderful culture!

Missing Japanese summer – crazy, nostalgic, or both?

I really miss living in Japan. I left the country a little over a year ago and at first I didn’t miss it too badly. It was nice to experience all the familiar things in Belgium again. But recently my Japan deprivation has been getting worse. How can I tell that it’s getting really bad? I have started feeling nostalgic about Japanese summer.

Those of you who have experienced summer in Japan will immediately understand why this is a bad sign. If you’re longing to be back in Japanese summer weather, you’re not quite right in the head. The combination of heat and humidity in Japan is brutal. As soon as the summer heat starts, people start counting down to autumn. Heat exhaustion is a common phenomenon and people prefer to stay indoors in air-conditioned spaces as much as possible.

But reason and emotion do not abide by the same rules. Although I realise that I have often cursed Japanese summer while I was living there, I am feeling very nostalgic about it. The sound of the cicada, eating a snow cone (kakigōri かき氷) on a hot day, the evening light over green rice fields, … なつかしいね!

You can hear what a cicada sounds like and read more about typical, nostalgic summer things in ‘Summer in Japan’.

evening light over the rice fields

Evening light over the rice fields – Toyota City, July 2011

riding home from work on a summer evening

Riding home from work on a beautiful summer evening – Toyota City, July 2011

People watching – Legs for Days

After having lived in Japan for a while, I gradually started feeling more and more at home there. As life in Japan became ‘normal’ to me, I often forgot that I myself still looked all but normal to Japanese people. A tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed gaijin stands out in a Japanese crowd, no matter how ‘Japanese’ the gaijin in question might feel on the inside.

My acclimatization to life in Japan, and consequently my familiarity with that sea of dark-haired, fairly short Japanese people had a funny consequence: I started feeling surprised whenever seeing a gaijin (‘OMG, look, a gaijin, I wonder what they’re doing here’) or tall people (‘I can’t believe how tall that person is! Look how much they stand out.’). After which I was of course forced to remind myself that I am, in fact, a tall gaijin myself.

Nevertheless, it prompted me to attempt a sneak photograph of an exceptionally tall Japanese lady that I saw on the train. Especially her legs seem to go on for days:

Legs for days, in Japan

Do you think she noticed my sneak photography attempts?

This is not the end

My recent blog post about goodbyes has led to some speculation about the end of this blog. But fear not my friends! (Or alternatively, depending on how you feel about this blog, ‘Sorry to disappoint you!’) No such thing is the case. A goodbye to Japan does not mean a goodbye to blogging for me.

Japan has provided me with endless inspiration for many blog posts to come. Photographs and notes have been diligently prepared. Besides that, the return to Belgium has already sparked new ideas like a series about ‘Japan in Belgium’ and stories about culture shock and the differences between Japan and Belgium. Looking at Belgium through Japanese eyes certainly gives me a new perspective.

So, dear readers, I hope you will stick with me to see what the future holds. I for one am anxious to find out!

Image from http://www.crossed-flag-pins.com (click on the image to go to their site)

On culture shock, or the lack thereof

People living abroad often experience ‘culture shock’. I find it hard to describe culture shock in just a few words, but simply put it refers to the process we all go through when coming into contact with a culture different from our own (see below for scientific definitions of culture shock).

culture shock

One of the most typical things about living in a different culture is that you are unfamiliar with the correct way to do even the simplest of things. How to greet your neighbour in the elevator, how to order in a restaurant (regardless of language constraints), how to do the laundry or operate the stove, how to do your groceries … All these things have to be learned again, as if one was a child. This feeling of being completely lost in the day-to-day world can sometimes cause feelings of anxiety, frustration, alienation or depression.

Having lived abroad before, I braced myself upon arrival in Japan. Hit me culture shock! But the shock didn’t come. I was loving every minute of my new Japanese life. All the differences were not alienating or frustrating, they were wonderful and interesting. Although I too was lost in all the aforementioned day-to-day things, strangely (and different from my previous experiences in foreign cultures) this did not lead to frustration or anger. Just fascination.

But wait a minute, it’s probably just ‘the honeymoon phase’, the first phase of culture shock. This phase, where everything is exciting and exotic typically lasts around three to six months. As we have been living in Japan for about six months now, I have been expecting the second phase, often referred to as ‘frustration/ withdrawal/ crisis phase’ for some time now. But so far so good. No crisis phase in sight.

culture shock U-Curve

Culture shock U-curve

Admittedly some things have changed. I don’t take a picture of every single thing I see anymore. I’m no longer constantly amazed as I walk down the street. I have recently had a few non-perfect Japanese experiences such as an unpleasant and alienating doctor’s visit or a conversation that was completely lost in translation. But despite all this I still love my Japanese life and am still fascinated by Japanese culture.

I remain a little distrusting of this serenity and continue to brace myself for whatever may happen next. Maybe there will be a reverse culture shock when we return to Belgium for a two-week holiday. Or maybe the culture shock will happen upon returning to Japan after our holiday. But then again, maybe I will just have the good luck to be stuck in the honeymoon phase forever. Here’s hoping.

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(1) Definition of culture shock by Oberg: Culture Shock is precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse. These signs or cues include the thousand and one ways in which we orient ourselves to the situations of daily life.

(2) Definition of culture shock by Hofstede: A state of distress following the transfer of a person to an unfamiliar cultural environment, which may also be accompanied by physical symptoms.