Culture Shift:
Living in Japan

by Janet Murray

To be published in Interchange, quarterly journal of the Oregon Educational Media Association, Winter '97
Pre-publication on the web by permission of the Editor.
Learning to Bow

Before I left Oregon to assume my new position as Information Specialist at Nile C. Kinnick High School on Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, I read Learning to Bow by Bruce Feiler. This book details the author's experiences as the first American living and teaching English in a small town in northern Japan. I had been to Kobe for INET'92 and received many Japanese visitors at Wilson High School. I was so sure I would be comfortable living in Japan that I often commented, "Working on a military base may be the more challenging cultural adjustment."

 Four months later, I am comfortable, but I have learned a great deal about the naivete of my assumptions and the extent of my ignorance. And I know I have a great deal more to learn; this collection of my first impressions is simply a personal account of my experiences thus far.

 Seeing the Sights

Most of us think of Japan as being very crowded, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover how many hills covered with familiar vegetation dot the landscape. My route to and from the base traverses nine tunnels! In fact, we often navigate by counting tunnels and stoplights, since few of the streets are named.

Yokosuka is located on the Miura Peninsula, surrounded by Tokyo and Sagami Bays. I live in an apartment which is walking distance from Zushi Beach, whose waters are populated in the summer by windsurfers, divers and sailors. The white sands along the roadside are covered with temporary shacks which sell food and sundries to the tourists from Tokyo and elsewhere. The shops in Hayama and the summer traffic remind me of Cannon Beach, except that there is significantly less parking and the streets are much narrower. Kamakura, best known for its 45-foot tall bronze statue of the Great Buddha, is a cultural treasure trove of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines only one train stop away.

Japanese crafts are extraordinarily varied and beautiful. From the most elaborate porcelain to the Hakata dolls fashioned from plain clay, from origami to washi paper, from lacquerware to chokin, from exquisite fabrics for kimonos and obis to the elegant simplicity of calligraphy, Japanese attention to detail produces exceptional quality. At school we enjoy the art of ikebana reflected in the fresh flowers which are delivered and arranged each week.

 Seeing a bright red sun rise above the bay or Mount Fuji suddenly appear in the light of the setting sun is an experience which helps clarify the Japanese emphasis on that heavenly orb. When I was in Kobe and saw all those clothes hanging out on balconies of high-rise apartments, it reminded me of New York tenements. Now I know that it is customary to invite the sun to purify and freshen one's clothes and living space.

 Living in Japan

Japanese housing is described as small, with limited storage space, so I was prepared for a 500 square foot one-bedroom apartment and shipped very little furniture. My "mansion" is another pleasant surprise: 900 square feet with a bedroom, an office, a "tatami" room, living room and dining "el" as well as a separate kitchen. Thus I have the perfect excuse to shop for Oriental furniture and crafts at the schools' bi-annual fundraising bazaars! You can view my apartment and my first purchases at mynewhome.

 It was somewhat of a shock to discover that the Japanese do not insulate their homes, nor do they have central heating and cooling. The room heating/cooling units in my apartment are a testimony to Japanese efficiency in the design of appliances and climate control sensors; however, the remote controls to operate them are all labelled in Kanji! One can also soak in the ofuro (deep bathtub) to warm up. Another popular way of combatting the cold is by installing a heated toilet seat.

You may know that the Japanese drive on the left hand side of the road; what isn't so obvious is that the turn signals are on the right hand side of the steering wheel (with "up" signalling left and "down" signalling right), and the windshield washer is on the left. They joke that Americans have the cleanest windshields in Japan while they are learning to adapt. There is a half-meter on the left side of the road which is used by bicyclists, pedestrians, scooter and motorcycle-riders and parked vehicles. It gives new meaning to the word "squeeze." I've also noticed that a light is considered "yellow" if it hasn't been red for more than sixty seconds - or so!

 Surrounded by Sound

 As I began house hunting on my second day in Japan, one of the first things I noticed was the noise produced by thousands of cicadas; they seemed to me to be protesting the heat and humidity, but perhaps I was projecting my own discomfort. Later in the fall, the crows do not merely "caw"; they conduct raucous conventions. The buses announce their doors are open with a tuneful chime at the stop outside my window, but it wasn't until I visited Yokohama that I noticed pedestrians are also guided by the musical sounds accompanying a "walk" signal.

There are loudspeakers located throughout Japanese neighborhoods; if you've heard the cows testing the new installation at Cannon Beach, you'll know what I mean by LOUDspeakers. Their most charming purpose is to greet dusk with a tune which is specific to each neighborhood so the children know it is time to return home for dinner. But a seemingly urgent announcement in an indecipherable language can be a little unsettling to the new resident.

Seiko makes animated clocks with elaborate characters moving to musical accompaniment. There is a remarkable one at Yokosuka's City Hall, but the most incredible one I have seen was at the entrance to the Sogo Department Store in Yokohama. Dolls dressed in national costumes move in and out of doorways to the tune of "It's a Small World."

"Foreign" Languages

 Global telecommunications has certainly had an impact. America has invaded the Japanese environment, from the ubiquitous Disney characters to Denny's. It's a real culture shift to walk into a place which looks familiar, but features a Japanese menu and servers who speak only Japanese. You select your food from the window displays or pictures on the menu, often wondering what type of meat or raw fish will be served. Despite the mandatory instruction in English which virtually all students receive, very few shopkeepers, deliverymen and repairmen willingly speak the language or do so intelligibly.

What can one say about a language which is represented by four different alphabets? Imagine driving or taking the train in a country where you cannot read the signs. I was grateful to be rescued from my first encounter with the mechanized parking lot entrances and exits by a kind gentleman who showed me which tickets to insert where.

 We teachers actually live in two worlds with at least three distinct cultures. Sixty percent of our students speak English as their second language. The world of the navy base can be a self-contained microcosm of America whose residents never venture out to discover the richness of the country in which they are located. Due to limited housing though, we all begin by living "on the economy."

 Even if you've never lived in a military environment, you will remember the government's propensity to proliferate acronyms from the televised NASA space shots. Acronyms can be a valuable tool for shorthand communication, but they do represent another language for the uninitiated. Instead of "moving" to Japan, I PCSed (experienced a permanent change of station). My furniture, however, is in "nontemporary (i.e. permanent?) storage." I shipped HHG (household goods), was required to report to the PSD (Personnel Support Detachment) upon arrival, and registered my car at the LTO (Land Transportation Office). The elevators are posted with notices of VTE (vertical transportation equipment) certificates on file.

Living in Japan has already enriched my life with some wonderful and unexpected adventures. I have not only learned to bow, but have learned that there are many different ways to bow, just as there are many levels of spoken and written Japanese. I wish you all a happy and healthy (but not too ferocious) "Year of the Tiger" (1998).