I moved to Tokyo about 3 weeks ago and have been adjusting to the cultural changes that come with moving around the world. In some ways, Japan is very similar to home, boasting all the big city characteristics one would associate with a bustling town full of people.
Funnily enough though, a lot of my culture shock moments were surprising to me. I guess I had prepared myself for the things everyone talks about, when the bigger cultural differences were in the details. Here are just a few.
1. FOOD. FOOD. FOOD.
The first thing that really overwhelmed me happened my very first night in Tokyo at a grocery store. It sounds simple: food is food. Because I don’t eat fish, I had slight concerns about eating out and finding restaurants that weren’t fish and noodles all the time.
I could not have been more wrong.
Just on my way to work alone, there is an English pub, a Mexican restaurant, an Italian restaurant and a fast food crepe joint, among many others.
What I had not thought would be difficult however, was buying groceries. As I walked down the various aisles, I came to realize how often I rely on brand names, logos or just the English alphabet. All of a sudden, shampoo is sold in plastic bags and butter in resalable containers. I picked up a box hoping to find crackers and opened fish sticks. The produce I like to buy regularly are incredibly expensive. Six strawberries are about $8. Avocados are $3.50 each. The cash process is a combination of someone scanning your items while you pay at a self serve type machine. It might not sound overwhelming but after a 13 hour flight, I was struggling.
Now that I’ve done groceries a few times, it makes more sense as I start to recognize brands and the things I like. Google Translate is also my new best friend.
2. LOST IN TRANSLATION.
As I live in a more suburban area of Tokyo, very few people speak English. There’s fragmented sentences here and there, but I very quickly realized I would be best served to learn the basics of Japanese to get around.
The same can be said at work. Our director, choreographer and stage managers all speak very little English, meaning we’ve basically learnt the show through a translator (and a very helpful American cast member). It took my ear a few rehearsals to get used to listening to information being passed down in two languages at the same time. Asking questions and expressing concerns while being fully dependent on a third party to appropriately deliver my message.
So, to better learn Japanese, I have started my “word a day” system, a super simple, low key way to learn Japanese. So far, I have 23 words!
3. COLOUR GARBAGE.
Japan is very on point when it comes to recycling. In fact, your garbage must be disposed of in specific bags you can buy at the grocery store, each identified by a cute little cartoon character of a different colour. More so, each region works on a slightly different system. Here in Urayasu, you divide your trash by combustibles, non combustibles and plastics. Cardboard and PET (plastic water bottles) have their own sections as well. And this isn’t just in the home. You will find these rows of colour coordinated bins in malls and restaurants.
After a few weeks, I still have to stop and look at all the display pictures to make sure I am disposing of things correctly but yay Japan for saving the planet one piece of garbage at a time!
4. THE HEAT IS ON.
I arrived in Tokyo at their hottest time of the year. And when I say hot, I mean unbearable. I’ve lived in the Caribbean for the last three years and this was worse. Temperatures over 40 °C with a humidex so intense, you are dripping in sweat before you’ve even had the chance to leave your apartment lobby.
To make matters worse, the Japanese don’t air condition their hallways. In retrospect, it makes sense, as people don’t tend to loiter in hallways as a hangout spot. But when all you want is the relief of cold air, you start questioning their thought process.
After two weeks, the temperature started to drop to a summer heat I was able to tolerate but the humidity still clings to the air. I can’t wait for fall.
5. QUIET HOUR.
The Japanese are known around the world as a very polite and kind society. It’s all about respect and discipline. I knew that when I arrived. What surprised me however, was how this translated to day-to-day activities.
The buses and subways are often very quiet, as it’s considered rude to be on your phone while commuting. People will barely make a sound at the movie theatre, even if they are thoroughly enjoying it. However, in respect to the creators of the film, they will stay until the very end of the credits. There is no grand applause at the end of a performance and standing ovations are rare.
What you have to understand however, is that this stems from a sense of respect. Performers from our show will often get gifts from audience members as a thank you for their work. They simply show their appreciation in a different way. I’ve also noticed a general lack of background music in public areas. Hotel lobbies, malls and restaurants seem even more still without the sound of music covering up the silence. After you get used to it, it’s actually quite peaceful.