Safety first in Japan

Japanese people are very concerned with safety. One of the first Japanese words I learned after arriving in Japan was anzen (安全 ), the Japanese word for safety.

A well-known example of this concern with safety is the method of ‘pointing and calling‘, shisa kanko (指差喚呼), used by public transport operators in Japan. Japanese train drivers will point at every sign they pass, calling out its status. This looks very funny to Western eyes but it is proven to help keep focus and attention.

Foreign Toyota employees receive similar instructions when they first arrive in Japan. The Toyota headquarters in Japan are so large that they include roads with motorized traffic on them. During their initial orientation, the expat employees are instructed on how to cross the road when they are at headquarters: they have to point to the left, say yoshi (which means something like OK), point to the right, say yoshi again, and only then may they cross. The Europeans, with their disdain for rules, think it is silly and try to skip the yoshi yoshi whenever they can. The Japanese employees, however, diligently follow the safety regulations, much to the astonishment and amusement of the Europeans.

Another example of Japanese concern with safety is this group of school children. They are all wearing helmets, which seem to be part of their school uniform.

Japanese safety anzen

Safety first in Japan: helmets as part of the school uniform.

I guess a country that is frequently affected by natural disasters, such as earthquakes, tsunami, volcanic eruptions and the like, cannot be blamed for an emphasis on safety. But Japan wouldn’t be Japan if there wasn’t also a huge contradiction in this concern with safety.

Imagine my surprise when I found out that many Japanese people watch TV while driving! While the Belgian government campaigns heavily against using the phone while driving, let alone watching television, in Japan it seems to be the most normal thing in the world to watch TV while driving. Many Japanese people have their navi system adjusted to also broadcast TV. While this isn’t exactly legal, as I’ve been told, many people do it.

Japanese people ignoring safety and breaking the rules? Just when you think you have things figured out, Japan throws you a curveball. Or is it allright to break the rules because the car is considered ‘private space’ (related to the honne – tatemae distinction) where you can do what you want? I would love to hear other people’s opinion on this. Please share what you think in the comment section!

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? ^_^

Hot ‘n tasty man

One of the things that surprised me while living in Japan, was the fact that there are so many seasonal foods in Japan. Coming from a country where it is considered completely normal to eat tomatoes all through winter and where young people think pineapple is a local produce (it’s not!), I was charmed by the way Japanese people look forward to their seasonal foods.

As a first world nation, the Japanese are of course perfectly capable of importing anything they might want at any time of the year. My personal interpretation is that they deliberately choose not to. I had the impression that people relish the anticipation associated with seasonal treats, and that the food is enjoyed all the more intensely because it is only available for a limited amount of time.

A good example of such a seasonal food is the wintery snack called ‘man’ (まん). Starting november, convenience stores all over Japan put heated display cases on the counter, displaying an assortment of stuffed buns (could this post get any more suggestive? I swear I’m not even trying).

Display cases with hot snacks in the convenience store

Display cases with hot snacks in the convenience store

There are different kinds according to the stuffing, like for example meat man (nikuman 肉まん), cheese curry man (chiizukareman チーズカレーまん) and my favourite, pizza man (pizaman ピザまん), which is filled with tomato sauce and melted mozzarella cheese. The ‘man’ is wrapped in a paper wrapper, much like a hamburger, and is of course meant to be eaten within minutes after purchasing it. Perfect for a quick snack on the go!

display with hot stuffed buns in japan

Different kinds of ‘man’ on display


Pizza man. Yummy!

Crazy butterfly in Kyoto

While attending Kyoto’s Aoi Matsuri (Hollyhock Festival) last week, I came across an endearing scene. A huge black butterfly had decided to have a rest in the sun, right on top of someone’s head.

Crazy butterfly in Kyoto sitting on someone's head

Crazy butterfly in Kyoto sitting on someone’s head

The person in question was keeping very calm, quietly posing for photographs.

Crazy butterfly in Kyoto

Calmly posing for pictures with a butterfly on his head

After a few minutes the butterfly took off and made for a new spot in the sun, this time on the head of a lady.

Crazy butterfly in Kyoto person nr 2

This lady has no idea that her head is the new resting spot for the crazy butterfly

At first this lady had no idea that she was the new ‘chosen one’ but as amateur photographers flocked to her, she took a few moments to pose for pictures and then calmly resumed walking, completely ignoring the butterfly on her head.

Crazy butterfly in Kyoto person nr 2 posing for pictures

Lady nr. 2 poses for pictures with the butterfly on her head

I was able to follow the butterfly to a third person. This time it was someone holding a white vest. This person responded in exactly the same way as the previous two people: he just stood there calmly, without moving or even smiling, while people where taking pictures of him.

Crazy butterfly in Kyoto person nr 3

The butterfly having a rest on the sleeve of person nr. 3

Crazy butterfly in Kyoto person nr 3 photographers

Posing for photographs with the butterfly on his sleeve

In this whole situation, I was actually more intrigued by the Japanese people’s behaviour than by the butterfly. European people in the same situation would either make frantic movements to chase the butterfly away (possibly accompanied by loud screaming) or they would make a show of themselves and pose conspicuously for the photographs. The modest behaviour of the Japanese and their simple acceptance of the situation impressed me.

Crazy butterfly in Kyoto close up

Crazy butterfly close up

A day in paradise

Around the middle of April it was cherry blossom time in Japan. Needless to say I had been looking forward to this for a while. When foreigners think of Japan and typical Japanese things, the beauty of the cherry blossoms is one of the first things that comes to mind.

Sakura beauty

Beautiful cherry blossoms

My anticipation was only increased by the excitement that takes hold of the entire Japanese nation as the blossom time approaches. The news report even gives daily reports on the advancement of the ‘cherry blossom front’.

Cherry blossom front for 2008. The flowers open first in the south and then the front makes its way north. The blossoms were a bit late this year due to the cold weather. (picture taken from

Why do the Japanese people love cherry blossoms, or ‘sakura’, so much? Apart from the simple fact that the sight of a street lined with blooming cherry trees is just gorgeous, the Japanese feel touched by the transient beauty of the blossoms. The sakura are at their most beautiful for only a few days. One day of rain may destroy the fragile flowers. This short-lived beauty is often taken as a metaphor for life: so beautiful and yet so short and sad. Indeed when watching the blossoms, one may be touched by an intense joy and a sweet melancholy all at the same time.

Sakura detail beauty, Nagoya, Japan

Cherry blossoms against the bright blue sky

Sakura detail

The delicate beauty of a cherry blossom

Apart from these rather poetic feelings, of course the Japanese also love to celebrate the seasons and never pass up an excuse to gather with friends and enjoy some typical festival food.

Sakura selling sweet potato or yakiimo

A small cart selling grilled sweet potato (called 'yaki-imo' in Japanese)

Sakura sweet potato salesman

A happy salesman, also selling sweet potato

Sakura selling takoyaki or octopus balls

A stand selling 'takoyaki': baked balls of dough stuffed with vegetables and pieces of octopus

In my efforts to see as much of the cherry blossoms as possible, I prepared for a ‘hanami’ (the viewing of the blossoms) on a sunny afternoon in April at one of Japan’s 100 most beautiful cherry blossom spots: the Yamazakigawa riverside in Nagoya.

Sakura Yamazakigawa riverside, Nagoya, Japan

The Yamazakigawa riverside in Nagoya

Cherry walk in Nagoya, Japan

Walking alongside the river Yamazaki in Nagoya

Having been to a few other cherry blossom viewing spots earlier that week and being slightly underwhelmed, I was not prepared for the beauty of this place. Not only was it simply gorgeous, all other conditions were perfect as well: the weather was sunny and warm with a slight breeze, it was not too crowded since it was a weekday, and everyone I met was just as happy as I was. Even the animals I met were in a good mood. It truly seemed like a paradise on earth; some place as yet untouched by the rest of the world. A magic spell, just for one day.

Sakura and fish, Nagoya, Japan

Cherry blossoms and sunlight on the water. Even the fish seem happy.

Sakura rabu rabu, Nagoya, Japan

A young couple, enjoying a romantic moment under the cherry blossoms

Sleeping under the cherry blossoms

It doesn't get any more relaxed than this: having a picnic and a nap on a sunny afternoon

Sakura and children playing in Japan

Children playing in the river

Sakura salaryman escaping modern life

An office worker escaping from modern life just for a moment

Angry Birds Real Estate

At first glance I thought this place was a day care center. The balloons, the bright colours, the cute (kawaii) animal drawings… But a closer look revealed that this place is in fact a real estate agency.

It is a clear example of the cultural difference between Japan and Europe. Whereas in Japan this styling will be perceived as ‘cute’ and will most likely serve to attract customers and inspire confidence, no European real estate agency would be taken seriously with this kind of ‘childish’ styling, as we would deem it.

The drawings also remind me a little of ‘Angry Birds‘.

kawaii real estate agency

Colourful Japanese real estate agency

Angry birds is a computer game

Angry birds logo (from Wikipedia)

Generosity from a stranger

When wandering around the Osu Kannon neighbourhood in Nagoya one summer afternoon, we were lucky enough to stumble unto a ‘mochi making ceremony’ at a temple (mochitsuki in Japanese). Mochi are sweet rice cakes.

The rice is first steamed and then placed into a mortar. One or two people with mallets pound the rice until it becomes a sticky and solid mass. During the pounding, the mass is turned over by someone moving his hand in and out in between the rhythmic pounds.

mochi making in osu kannon 1

Mochi making in Osu Kannon. On the right you can see the rice being steamed in wooden containers.

When the mass is finished, deft hands divide it into smaller pieces and dust it with soybean flour.

mochi making in osu kannon 2

Dividing the mass into smaller pieces and handing the mochi out.

This apparently is a popular treat because the queue was endless.

cueing for mochi 1

Queuing inside the temple - the queue goes on outside the temple as far as the eye can see.

As we were watching the mochi making and considering whether or not to join the queue, a man came up to me and selflessly offered me his recently acquired and very coveted mochi. He just walked up to me, offered the mochi with both hands, mumbled ‘for you’ and dashed off. He disappeared so quickly I didn’t even get a chance to thank him. I was quite moved by this selfless act of generosity.

mochi making in osu kannon 3

Elated gaijin-chan holding her mochi

Since then, I have had the good fortune of enjoying other similar tokens of selfless generosity from strangers. Just the other day I was offered a ticket to an ikebana exhibit by two ladies who saw me giving my only ticket to my sister-in-law who was visiting Japan.

I wonder if I’m blessed with particularly good karma or if the act of giving just for the sake of it is something inherent to Japanese society. Such things have certainly not happened to me in Belgium. But then again, maybe standing out as a blond-haired gaijin helps a little too.

Forces of nature

Today typhoon nr. 15, a.k.a. Roke, passed through Japan. It’s the first typhoon since we’ve been here that passed directly over Nagoya and Toyota-City, and the first one that really had me worried.

Typhoon nr. 15, Roke

You can see the typhoon passing almost directly over the area where we live, indicated by the red cross. The typhoon is now over Tokyo. Click on the image to go to the Weathernews website and see an animation of the typhoon's trajectory.

Yesterday on the news we watched images of Nagoya being flooded. And that was before the typhoon even arrived. The flooding was caused by a rain front preceding the typhoon. Now that the typhoon has passed, it seems like in Toyota City it was relatively mild. But the news constantly shows images from all over Japan with fallen trees, cancelled trains and people almost being blown over by the strong wind. Several areas around us, like Nagoya and Okazaki, experienced flooding.

This is the typhoon at its worst in Toyota City, around 3 p.m.

By 6 p.m. everything seemed fine again.

clear skies after typhoon over Toyota City

The view from our balcony around 6 p.m.

While I was preparing for the typhoon and feeling anxious about what was going to happen, it struck me how strong the forces of nature are in Japan. Earthquakes, tsunami, typhoons, landslides, flooding, volcanic eruptions, … In Japan you never know what nature has in store for you. I feel I should be prepared for anything, with an emergency kit standing by at the front door. I’ve started memorizing emergency numbers and found out where to evacuate to in case of a disaster. To experience the forces of nature in all their might is a new experience for me. In Belgium nature is usually very mild.

I wonder how this ‘constant threat’ has influenced Japanese culture. This topic is broached in one of my favourite books: James Clavell’s ‘Shogun’. It is suggested there that because of the regular confrontation with the fact that anything can happen at any time, Japanese people live more in the moment. I indeed find this confrontation with the elements humbling. It makes me grateful for every beautiful day. I can imagine that experiences like this might lead one to appreciate the transient beauty of for example cherry blossoms even more.

The Tōhoku quake aftermath

In response to the post about ‘my first earthquake‘, many of the readers recounted their experience during the March 11th earthquake (read the comments on the post). Actually I was already planning on posting about that quake at some point, so now is as good a time as any.

In Japan this quake is commonly referred to as the Tōhoku quake. As undoubtedly all of you know, it occurred on March 11th 2011 somewhere off the coast of Japan. It had a magnitude of 9 on the Richter scale and is the most powerful earthquake to have ever hit Japan (according to Wikipedia). The main damage was however not caused by the quake itself but by the tsunami that followed in its wake.

The Tōhoku area is indicated in red


The first few weeks after the quake, every news station in the world was on top of the story. But since then many foreign media, or in any case Belgian media, have ceased to report on the quake and it’s aftermath. I had the impression that because of this, the general public is also forgetting about the disaster that hit Japan. It was therefore touching to see that in the comments on ‘my first earthquake‘ , people’s thoughts and prayers go out to the people of Japan.

Of course the people of Japan are still living with the effects of this disaster every day.  The Japanese news brings stories about the disaster every few days and the weather report has a special section for ‘the disaster-affected-area’. The rebuilding is going on as we speak and it will take at least several years for Japan to recover from this disaster.

When I first arrived in Japan, I was very impressed with the way Japanese people, including those outside the affected area, still hold the disaster in mind every day. When I talked to people about it, they became very solemn and spoke with great sorrow and compassion about what had happened. Japanese people have a quiet kind of bravery: everyone does what they can, even in places far away from the Tōhoku region (like not turning on the AC to save electricity). People try to stay positive without denying the reality of their situation. Is this a typical Japanese quality, perhaps for cultural and historical reasons? To face your situation wholeheartedly and accept it with all the good and bad that in encompasses? I hope I can find out as I get to know Japan and it’s people better.