Japan: Small Details Make For Big Differences


It’s interesting how much difference there is between the U.S. and Japan that doesn’t meet the eye at first. When I arrived here in Japan in early September, I had the idiotic delusion that American life is not that different from Japanese life. Of course, on the surface, that is 100% true: very few differences exist in day-to-day life between a Japanese person and an American person living in their respective countries. City life in Kyoto is very similar to city life in a smaller major city like San Diego or Austin or Memphis. Country life in Japan is very similar to country life in America. Chalk that up to basic human needs, or globalization, or whatever you like. However, there are so many small details that I can only begin to understand, and they define more about the differences in day-to-day life in these countries. I was so, so wrong when I thought the only major difference was the language difference. In fact, the core part of these differences is a difference in mentality.

Walking to my dormitory from campus on a beautiful afternoon.

Let me explain using one specific example. On my first day here in Japan, I got stared at and even glared at, and it wasn’t until I was gently told off by my Japanese friend that I noticed it was because I was the only one wearing my packed backpack normally on a packed train in Tokyo. I had failed to notice a small sign on the side of the train car telling passengers to take off their backpacks and put them at their feet or hold them. When I say small, I mean it: the sign was maybe 4 inches by 2 inches with small script and a tiny picture. Sure enough, when I took off the backpack, the majority of the stares and glares stopped (there was still some, but that’s probably because I’m huge and blatantly foreign). Looking back at that experience, I am surprised how well that really demonstrates an idea in Japan, a core idea that deviates from the individualistic mentality of America: the Japanese ideal seems to be a wish to put their society and its harmony first before anything.

Every part of Japanese day-to-day life seems to contribute towards this ideal. Men don’t wear cologne or strong scents, and bathe- not just shower- frequently (body odor is extremely evident in close quarters, and Japan has A LOT of small spaces). Most women cover up and do not show skin. People don’t say what they really mean whenever they speak about something. Apologies like sumimasen are used for a ton of additional functions in Japan- interjections, thanks, ‘excuse me’- and as such, it is the most common phrase I’ve heard since getting to Japan (it’s also the most common phrase I use here). Quiet looks and passive behavior is used to clue people into acting a certain way instead of doing something that could be seen as weird or disruptive instead of saying something out loud. It’s all about not offending people, apologizing for butting into their lives (even for something as small as talking to them), and not interfering with them further. That’s why even though I was taking up so much space in the Tokyo train, no one said anything to me even though I was in the way so much. The whole matters more than the individual. People go out of their way to make sure others’ lives are not disrupted.

Yes, there’s definitely an aspect to the mindset that is a bit iffy: they believe that Japan and Japanese people come first, and if you’re not ancestrally Japanese you’re not really Japanese- even if you’re a natural-born citizen, you’re still just a foreigner. In other words, you are not seen as the same level of person as they are. That aspect of the Japanese mentality is one that I don’t particularly care for, as I’ve stated before in previous articles. In fact, I don’t care for that mentality anywhere, especially in my home country. I don’t want this to turn into a manifesto of American idealism, but I want that stated.

That said, there are some genuine benefits to the Japanese mindset of “the whole before the individual”. Kyoto is a city with a population of millions, but I’ve hardly ever seen a cleaner city; even Tokyo is generally cleaner than most American cities (though areas where foreign tourists congregate tend to be dirtier, like Osaka’s Dotonbori). Public works projects are undertaken in Japan considerably faster and with less bureaucratic slowdown than in the U.S., and they are designed to be reliable for the long term so few will be inconvenienced. Recycling is a common part of everyday life. People don’t scream at each other in public and intentionally try not to bother others with anything (noise, smell, etc.). Traffic seems to flow better, people follow rules to a ridiculous point (many don’t even jaywalk), and bicycles seem to be as common as cars in certain places. Sure, I love my American individuality and “I don’t care” mentality, but there’s no denying that the absence of that mentality has led to Japan having some of the nicest cities I’ve ever visited.

Shijo Kawaramachi, Downtown Kyoto.

There’s a beauty to the idea that the wellbeing of the society around you is more important than your immediate needs. It’s created a genuinely peaceful and safe country, as even in touristy places I generally do not ever feel unsafe (though that could change in red-light districts like Tokyo’s Kabukicho). Yes, it requires a lot of work to adapt to as an American. I have to spend more time thinking about how even my most minor actions affect others. However, I feel as though that this has caused me to grow as a person.

I’m obviously still adjusting to all of it (and will continue to do so for the rest of my time here), but I’m admittedly getting better at it as time goes on. Of course, that mentality I have from America won’t go away, but adopting a bit of that Japanese mentality can sure help make things in everyday life a tad easier here. I think adopting parts of that would make a huge difference in America too, where people could be at each other’s throats a bit less and spend more time trying to make our country the best place to live that it can be. (Though I’d argue that Japan could take some lessons in diversity from the West, too.) Overall, there’s no denying that living in Japan really can help change a person’s mindset.

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