What is so special about Japan anyway?

I absolutely adore Japan. And I am not the only one. More and more foreigners are becoming true Japan-o-holics. But where does this fascination with the land of the rising sun come from? What is so special about Japan anyway?

One of the most interesting things about Japan, at least to me, is that it is just so different. Even the smallest aspect of life becomes an adventure if you have no idea what to expect. The slogan of the Japan Tourism Organization captures this idea perfectly with three simple words: “Japan. Endless Discovery.”

Japan endless discovery

Japan National Tourism Organization slogan

Of course any foreign culture might make for an endless discovery. But in my experience, there is no culture quite as ‘different’ as the Japanese culture. Off the top of my head, I can think of two reasons why Japan feels even more different (to us Westerners) than other foreign cultures .

  • Up until roughly 150 years ago, Japan had very little contact with the outside world. During the Edo period (1603 – 1868), foreigners were not allowed to enter Japan. This has given the Japanese culture the opportunity to develop independently of foreign influences for over 200 years, leading to a truly unique culture. I think the influence of feudal Japan can still be felt in today’s modern Japan.
  • Japan is a first world country. Usually when Westerners think about cultures that are very different from their own, they imagine third world countries. And naturally we expect a third world country, that is already so different in terms of infrastructure, economy, etc., to have a very different culture as well. But to experience a severe culture shock in the midst of the comforts of modern-day Japan is quite something else.

Another thing that makes Japanese culture so fascinating is that it is a culture of subtlety and contradictions. In Japan, many things are not what they seem at first sight. That often makes it difficult to accurately describe or understand certain aspects of Japanese culture. But of course it also makes life in Japan very interesting (or frustrating, depending on your viewpoint). Living as a foreigner in Japan, just as you think you have something figured out, you encounter a new piece of information that defies your previous logic.

An additional reason for my fascination with Japan is the sheer amount of cultural expressions there are. There is ancient Japan with its temples, ladies in kimono and the age-old arts of tea ceremony, flower arranging and calligraphy. And then there is the colourful abundance of modern-day Japan filled with game centers, Harajuku girls and karaoke. Even as Japan starts to adopt more and more Western influences, the Japanese always find a way to transform these foreign elements and truly make them their own.

Harajuku girls Tokyo

Harajuku girls in Tokyo – image from blog.theholidaze.com

Perhaps after reading all of this, you are still mystified as to why I love Japan so much. Indeed the reality of life in Japan is difficult to describe. It is something that has to be experienced. This became most apparent when all of my visitors in Japan were baffled by the diversity and complexity of Japanese culture. And they all became fans, vowing to be back for more.

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.