Before going to Japan for an exchange program, I happen to have visited some countries like Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, or Australia, for some purposes like conference or vacation. But, I personally have never spent more than two weeks abroad before my stay in Japan. So, the thought of having to face such a culture shock never came across my mind until I became the only one in class (of which most of the students are Japanese) who was in panic attack when a sudden earthquake happened. I did not take culture shock seriously at the beginning as I have always used to be the easy-going type of a person. But, from the bittersweet moments I have experienced while living on my own in Japan, culture shock sometimes happens to you in such an unexpected situation. With no further do, here some of thing that I would like to share with you so you could have done better than me in terms of adapting to a whole new culture, especially in Japan where the culture is so dense.
1. Politeness is Everything
If you ask me, what surprised me the most and what I missed the most from Japan, the answer will be none other than the people. Back then, I used to be the type of people who will make the initiative to talk to random strangers in the street, or just simply smiling at them. It wasn’t me being rude or anything. It is just that need of being safe in our own space by making a certain distance to strangers. But, Japanese takes politeness seriously and for a first timer Japan visitor like me, it came as a shock actually. How overly friendly the cashier and customer service are made me kind of anxious actually, in case I did not give the right response or I did something rude of which I did not realize. Their overly polite people are also the thing I miss the most from this country. Their politeness leaves something which I hold onto until this very moment, which is equality. How Japanese can be so polite to everyone regardless the clothes they are wearing or maybe their job, is just a little piece of golden lesson that I got from my stay in Japan.
2. The ‘Eating-Out-Loud’ Manner
This one topic is fun to talk about as going to a restaurant must be on top of your ‘things-to-do’ list. There are several types of restaurant that you will find in Japan, from Izakaya by the street to that high end fine dining located inside the five stars hotel in downtown Tokyo. As an exchange student, I spent most of my time at the University cafeteria to be honest, but when it comes to eating out, the challenge can be a little tricky even though you know how to use chopsticks properly. When you come to a restaurant, Japanese restaurant usually serve you water or even ocha for free and they also provide a free refill. if they don’t serve you right away, it might a self-served restaurant where the complimentary drink is usually located somewhere in the corner of the restaurant so you can get your drink by yourself. If you order a meal set, it usually come with a soup in a tiny bowl. You might think you want to use a spoon to eat it but actually you can just bring the bowl close to your mouth and drink it right away. Also remember not to tip your server as it’s usually considered as rude.
Japanese are known to be very quiet but when it comes to eating, especially ramen, it is totally okay to make a sound while you are slurping your noodle. Loud slurping may seem rude here in Indonesia, but in Japan the sound you make while slurping your noodle symbolizes how you enjoy the meal and this lets the chef or your host know that you really enjoy the meal. So, just let it loose and slurp your noodle loudly. Another trivia is slurping noodle loudly is not just for the sake of politeness, but it also avoids your tongue from getting burnt because by slurping it down quickly, it helps your mouth escaping the burning sensation from the noodle itself. So, the loud slurping culture does not come with no reason, right?
3. The Futuristic Toilet Paper
Japan is very well known for their futuristic toilet and its uncountable buttons and unexpected music. The complicated and endless button seems to be everyone’s problem but do you know that Japanese toilet paper can be dissolved in water? When I was visiting Tokyo on my own, I happened to share a hostel room with Indonesians who were really nice and friendly. I had one thing to anticipate at that time and I was totally right, the toilet trash can was overloaded with used toilet paper. Been living in Japan for almost two months, the overloaded toilet trash can was something I never came across to because people flushed their used toilet paper altogether. So, if you ever visit Japan, do not worry that your used toilet paper is going to stuck and damage the toilet if you flush it away as their toilet paper is dissolved in water. In case of the complicated toilet button, do not get panic as you are fine as long as you do not touch the red alarm button which is usually located on the wall. Take your time to really look at the button as getting panic will just make things a lot worse.
4. Be Considerate
If people in Indonesia wear mask while using public transportation to avoid the dust and dirty weather, Japanese people tend to wear mask while they are sick to be considerate to the people around them so others do not get infected too. While I was living in a dormitory, I got this allergic reaction which made my whole body covered in red rashes. Although my allergic reaction looked a little scary, it was not something contagious or anything but the owner of my dormitory was really concerned and told me to only use the toilet on the first floor, which was rarely used, to avoid other people getting infected. Blowing your nose out loud is surprisingly normal as long as you cover your nose and mouth with mask. In my class, people used to blow their nose out loud regardless whether the lecture was speaking or not. So, don’t be surprised if you hear someone blowing their nose and you just can’t really hear anymore what the lecture is saying.
Long story short, experiencing a culture shock is just a phase of adapting to a completely new surrounding, especially if you happen to live in a country where the culture is so dense like Japan. To adapt to a new culture is a way to learn, to experience a culture shock is a way to press that start button which will always be the hardest part. So, enjoy your stay abroad and immerse yourself with the culture surrounding you.
Photos provided by author