Japan Thru Non-Japanese Eyes

Alphons Metselaar

Culture Shock: Things may not seem what they are in Japan


In Japan at first sight everything seems familiar, it looks like Europe or the USA. It is Asia, but you can drink the water out of the tap. Electricity is no problem, no black outs or brown outs. Busses and trains run on time. There is no need to bribe officials to get everyday things done. It looks like home away from home but smaller and cleaner. The latest fashions arrive at the same time as in Europe and the youth cultures all have their counterparts, looking their part. That is all at first sight like I said.
When I was in Kyoto in 1992 I was looking for a place to go for a rock concert. Normally I would check out the papers to see what is going on. Since I can`t read a Japanese, I figured I could ask my counterparts which joint was the place to go. So we searched for the favorite hangout where I would go if I was back home. When we found a music store and all the customers and staff looked familiar (Leather jackets, loud T-shirts and torn jeans) we immediately went in. I asked a couple of guys which place was the best to go to. They all became very quiet, and started looking at each other as if I just did an indecent proposal. I repeated my question, and some began hissing through their teeth and mumbling "Muzukashii". I now know what it means but then I thought that they were telling me the name of the place or a band. I figured that if you are so keen to look exactly like any other ordinary western youth with T-shirts of western rock bands, surely youÕll be able to speak or understand English? They did understand me all right. But (this is something I learned afterwards) conversations are quite something else. One of them beckoned me to the counter where there was a magazine with all the information I wanted. But it was in Japanese. It slowly dawned on me that they were afraid to speak with me. They felt that they would look stupid having a conversation in bad English. I encouraged them by saying that their English would always be better than my non existent Japanese. This helped a bit and they started to discuss among themselves which place I should go. They all agreed that Osaka was where it is at. Since I said that it was too far, they had a discussion once more. All the time just the one guy did the talking, it was not that he could speak the best English, it was rather that he was the most brave or not concerned about looking awkward. They showed me in the magazine a list of clubs that would feature bands that I liked. (I mentioned my favorite bands to help the search.) I asked which was the best club. This didnÕt ring a bell. They didn`t have a clue what I was talking about. I tried it a few times more but still no luck. Then I hit upon an idea. Before leaving to Japan there was a television series "Shogun". In it at some time the Portuguese pilot shouts "Ichiban!"proclaiming himself the boss. So I asked which one was ichiban then. Now they all knew what I was talking about. At last something good came from watching TV. They all agreed on the "Rocker Room" not far from the Budo Center. Couldn`t stop thinking why they would name a club like this, because I already experienced that Japanese mix up the L and the R or at least they sound the same to them. I thanked them profoundly, and I complimented the spokesperson with his English. They all looked very relieved that the ordeal was over when we said goodbye.

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