I am on my way to the airport. Did I learn something? … I hope so.
Foreigners seem to either love or hate this country. There seems to be little in between. I can understand both, as in my experience Japan has two inseparable faces like the sides of a coin. What distinguishes Japan from other countries I have seen?
There are Rules. Many of them. Everything comes with instructions. I was told that this sequence of posters in an underground passage helps me to walk at the correct speed of 4 km/h.
Rules structure everyday life. It seems that I could spend a lifetime on learning them. There is no need to think, if I know the rule. Rules reduce misunderstandings. I can rely on them. This made things easy. … It made things hard, when I needed an exception. If something exceptional happens, if there is no rule, things tend to get awkward.
Rules create expectations and expectations create pressure. Social pressure seems enormous. Lives seem to follow a tight schedule with clearly defined goals. Failure is not an option. Failure is really bad.
Rules seem to make things efficient, … and rigid.
Materialism seems rampant in Japan. I have never been in a more materialistic country. Cash is King. Shopping is a religion. Everything is on sale. Luxury is good.
There is an abundance of shops, stores and supermarkets. Gift shops and convenience stores are everywhere. People seem to love spending money.
If you have money you show it in what you wear, what you drive and what you carry.
There is some tool or gadget for everything you can think of.
If you need it you can buy it. Japan is a convenience country with many services, often exactly when you need them. This can be great if you have money, … without it you do not exist.
Isolation has tradition and seems to be welcome. Japan is an archipelago of mountainous islands in more than one sense. I found Japan inaccessible in more than one way.
The language, especially the written one, takes some time to get used to. Many english terms are in use, but in a “japanized” form that makes them hard to recognize even for native english speakers. As the correct use of language seems very important in Japan this is an efficient barrier. It actually works both ways. Everyone seems to learn English, but only few really speak it.
According to Wikipedia 1,5% of the population are foreigners. In many places I found myself the only one. I spoke to many foreigners and only very few Japanese. The gist of it was: You are born Japanese, you do not become Japanese. People did not bother me, hardly ever approached me, … in many cases would not talk to me in any real sense of the word.
Then there is the Group. It seems to give the Japanese soul what it needs: context, meaning, shelter and friends. Individuality seems only acceptable as long as it does not interfere with the group interest. Peer pressure seems intense, hierarchy strict. Follow the Group, Obey your Superiors, seems to be the Mantra.
The Group takes care of its members and in return it takes everything you can give. Working overtime seems to be common. There is a word for “death from overwork”: karoshi. Suicide rates are high. On the other hand, Japan has one of the highest life expectancies in the world.
Harmony seems really important, but there is a difference between politeness and friendliness. Things are done quietly and correct. Smiling can be a subtle and complicated way to communicate. Everything has to look nice. I always felt safe, I like the care people take of details and enjoyed the comfort.
This is of course my personal conclusion, based on my own experiences and observations, without deeper understanding or thorough research. It is just my opinion. Japan has many bright and many dark sides. As a foreigner, especially as a tourist, you have the privilege to choose your own set to perceive.