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WIT Life #24: Cultural Clashes

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WITLife is a periodic series written by professional Interpreter/Translator/Writer Stacy Smith (Kumamoto-ken, 2000-03).  Recently she’s been watching Fujisankei’s newscast in Japanese and sharing some of the interesting tidbits and trends together with her own observations.

Following up on the Tsukiji auction controversy I discussed here recently, one segment of the news took the pulse of different Japanese attitudes towards foreigners visiting the country. All of the respondents seemed to attribute any trouble they have experienced to cultural differences and not poor manners on the part of gaijin.

The first spot was the discount store Daiso in Asakusa, where several signs clearly spell out what is not acceptable behavior in the store. For example, a comfortable looking low counter was a place many foreigners had been resting their weary legs. As this is not what Daiso intended the space for, it had to create a sign reading “Don’t sit on the counter.” Another problem the management encountered was people finishing their drinks while walking around the store and bringing the empty bottle to the register to then pay for that. The manager said that while in other countries this might be natural in Japan it was not, leading to the necessity of a “Don’t drink before you pay” sign.

At a restaurant a stone’s throw from Asakusa’s famous Sensoji, the owner described how his majority Indian clientele were cutting into his bottom line. He sells a cup of coffee for only 100 yen, and very often these customers add as many as 4-5 sugars and 3-4 milks to this purchase. He complained, “I understand that they have a tradition of chai and like things sweet, but if they use that much sugar and milk I lose money on the deal.”

These gaijin woes are not unique to Tokyo. In Kyoto an employee at a souvenir shop near Kiyomizu Temple expressed her surprise at how Chinese tourists behave. “We sell Buddhist statues which particularly appeal to them, and they want to check numerous times to make sure they are authentic.” This makes sense in a country such as China with extensive copyright and counterfeiting problems, but in Japan this doesn’t tend to be an issue. “They examine it before as well as after I wrap it, insisting that I show them the content of the box before closing it. They want to make sure that there won’t be any damage during transport or that I have not switched the item without them realizing.”

Maiko are another source of cultural confusion for Kyoto visitors. As these apprentice geisha walk the streets of Gion on their way to work, foreigners misinterpret this as some kind of show. As a result, they are constantly snapping pictures, putting their arms around the maiko, and when inebriated sometimes even following or harassing them. In order to avoid problems, the maiko are often escorted by a white jacket-wearing anti-crime patrol that began last year. One member of this group explained that once foreigners understand what the situation and proper protocol are, they usually become respectful right away. Clear communication between both parties is of the utmost importance. Hearing these stories reminded me of my own unintentional guffaws while living in Japan, which I can laugh at now but were slightly traumatic at the time…

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