industrious ants

All about a life in motion.

Month: April, 2011

Culture Shock and Awe

All you need to know.


I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on the life that Matt and I have made here in Japan and how much our lives have changed in such a short time. We have gone from arriving to a virtually empty apartment with a few suitcases full of clothing, to owning a car, adopting a cat and making way for a baby. Indeed, just having an apartment with running hot water is amazing if you consider that our first year of marriage was spent wandering around the mountains and beaches of Asia with a tent and living out of our backpacks on 20$ a day. It feels like all of a sudden we have reached a point where 20$ can barely buy the both of us lunch at a local café.

The language is becoming less and less of a barrier as well. I’m very far from being fluent, but I felt a small sense of accomplishment the other day when I was out with a British friend enjoying a local festival and I heard a passerby exclaim in Japanese “Wow! Foreigners!” I’m still working on my reaction time, so I didn’t have any quick comeback at that moment, but for now I am more than happy just being able to understand the sentiments of those around me, no matter what they may be. As an aside, it’s come to my attention that half of all conversations at my workplace are about school related matters, the other half revolve around food.

In the beginning, the most deceptive thing about being in Japan was that I was in Japan. Having traveled quite a bit in Asia before moving here, my initial impression of the country was somewhat dull. Stepping off the plane, I felt like I had just spent 15 hours flying in one big circle, only to disembark back in Canada, in a Toronto full of Japanese people. Sure, it was cleaner and more organized, and my hotel’s electric toilet seat kept me sitting there for a few extra minutes playing with all the various cleaning functions, but Tokyo was just another big city. I didn’t feel the expected excitement of being purposefully lost in a strange new land. The roads were paved, the buildings were really no different from back home and my friendly North American corporations, McDonald’s and Coke, were there with open arms to greet me. It was all too familiar and I felt a little disappointed that I had come back to an Asia that didn’t feel like Asia at all. Rather, I should say, it didn’t feel like the Asia that I knew.

What I didn’t realize then, but understand now, is that Japanese culture-shock is a subtle yet potent experience, and the feeling of it sets in much slower than other places I’ve traveled. Japan is not India, where the moment you arrive you are instantly bombarded with people in your face, smells you wish you’d never smelled and the constant honking of no less than a hundred rickshaws all at once, all the time. Definitely missing is the feeling that your money and passport are in imminent danger of being ripped off your person, even if they are shoved deep down in your underwear, and gone is that stray dog ambiance and traffic-stopping cow Je ne sais quois. My mistake coming back to the Far East was in thinking that Asia as a whole could be solely defined by only its sensual elements and the speed in which it could raise ones blood pressure. I failed to recognize how the psychology of a nation, especially one as deep as Japan’s, could affect me, and that it was only a matter of time and experience before it hit.

Almost two years later, I’m just now starting to feel like I am getting a handle on the people and the culture, and there are definitely days when the complexities of the Japanese way can be a little frustrating. Just talking to people can be challenging, regardless of what language you are using. Positive communication here has a lot to do with how you say things and your choice of words. In my opinion, you can be perfectly fluent and have a 3000 word vocabulary, but if you can’t read between the cultural lines and respond in an appropriate manner, then really, you can’t speak Japanese.

A good example is the word no. No, or any verbal sentiment that resembles disagreement or rejection, does not often find its way into the vocabulary of my Japanese friends and colleagues. I find it wise to use caution when asking people for favors, because people will rarely turn down a request, even if it is inconvenient for them. I take this as far as holding back from making restaurant or movie suggestions. I find that people here feel obligated to do what others want instead of what they would prefer to do. At least over time, the better I get to know someone, the less this happens and my Japanese friends now understand that it won’t offend me if they speak up and say they don’t want to go out for sushi again. If you don’t clue into this cultural nuance at some point, you will develop an outstanding and generous opinion of Japanese people, as they will bend over backwards to make you happy, but perhaps their view of you won’t be the same if you fail to reciprocate.

Depending on how no is used can make a person seem too forward or even rude. A good example is if I asked my supervisor for the day off tomorrow. He might pull out his day planner and start flipping through it for a minute or two, then maybe he would offhandedly mention another teacher that also has the day off, and finally he would lean back in his chair and let out a deep-in-thought ‘Hmmmmmm’ all while rubbing chin pensively. This obviously means ‘No, no you can’t have the day off’. He’s not going to actually say it, possibly because he thinks it may offend me that my request is being turned down, and that would just be cruel, right? Instead, the moment I clue into the underlying message of this small but complex dance, I should step in at the right moment and magically remember some other more convenient day that I would prefer instead, or actually, that I didn’t really want the day off at all and what was I thinking?! Of course, I could just stand there silently insisting, and I might just get what I asked for, but not without having made my supervisor highly uncomfortable and making myself look like a complete asshole.

I am lucky to have a handful of colleagues who have experience working with foreigners, so they know they can be a little bit more direct with me. Sometimes it really balances out my day when I can get a straight, quick and honest answer to my questions. Still, I don’t necessarily think that western style directness is always the way to go. There is something very beautiful and considerate about the way people commune with each other here. Some critics might say it’s fake and showy, but there are times I prefer it to the alternative. On a recent trip home to North America I felt really uncomfortable dealing with anyone in customer service. The tone of peoples’ voices seemed harsher than I remembered, and their quick answers came off as brash and made me feel like I wasn’t worth their time. On the flight there, I couldn’t help but cringe at the over-casual way the airline attendants addressed the Japanese passengers. They wouldn’t look people in the face or smile, they would roll their eyes if someone didn’t understand English and sometimes they would even frown disapprovingly at requests. Obviously, the staff had only been taught to serve drinks, but had learned nothing about setting a good cultural impression on international guests visiting our country. They might as well have just come out and said “Welcome to America, and f*ck you”. On that note, I will never fly Delta Airlines again.

I don’t know, maybe I’ve been in Japan too long or maybe I’m just getting soft. It makes me wonder how much can I have changed in less than two years, or in even just one? Well, thinking back, I spent three weeks in Canada that summer and the reverse culture shock was surprisingly strong. Everything seemed incredibly dirty and everyone seemed unbearably rude and fat. At the time, coming home from Japan after only one year away made Canada feel like a third world country in comparison. Thankfully, readjusting didn’t take too long and I really enjoyed my time home with family and friends. Upon returning to Japan, on my first day back at work, I sat down with a colleague and started telling her about my trip. She listened intently and when I was finished she said, “It’s amazing! When you left three weeks ago, you were practically Japanese, and now you’re back and you’re Canadian again!” Basically speaking, a whole year’s worth of cultural adaptation was all but reversed in a matter of weeks, and all it took was one conversation for my colleague to notice the difference. It goes to show how deep cultural roots go. I asked her jokingly “So, is that a good thing or a bad thing?” She sat there for a moment, thought about it, and then replied quite seriously “Both.”

April 22, 2011


I Love You, But I’ve Chosen Darkness

Time to start building.


I have to apologize. I really didn’t want to write anything about radiation today. I just finished telling my brother-in-law that I can’t let the only driving force behind my writing be the aftereffects of the tsunami. While I’m at it, the same goes for the maternity sections of this site. There must be more to my life than birthing babies and grand scale apocalyptic destruction, or so I would like to believe. Unfortunately, I think that is where my world is stuck at the moment. I suppose these days, being pregnant in Japan, I have no choice but to live an existence of extremes, caught somewhere in between these two polar events;
catastrophic wide scale death – ME – imminent life-giving birth
Both are terrifying in their own right, but so far I only have to experience one first hand, and thankfully it’s the good one.

In any case, there are a few things that have driven me back to the thing I wanted to avoid. Yesterday, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency upgraded the severity of the nuclear disaster from a level 5 to a level 7, putting the Fukushima incident in the same category as Chernobyl. Does this come as a surprise to me? Not really. Am I worried? I suppose I should be, but strangely I’m not. An uncle wrote me and said we were ‘brave’ for sticking this thing out, but really I don’t think courage is what’s keeping us planted here. It’s more like a feeling of numbness, almost as if a general anesthetic has been applied to our fears of the threat, making it possible to ignore them for a period of time. Still, we’re not stupid. We’re aware of the damage and pain that still exists just under the skin. I suppose we are clinging to the hope that with each passing day the country is healing a little bit more and that we won’t need to cut ourselves away from it just yet.

I can tell that my family is still concerned about our decision to stay, but I am happy that they are doing their best to restrain their panic. It must not be easy for them. As sound-minded as they are, I know even they have their limits, and I can imagine them readying the straight jackets, secretly organizing an intervention to bring Matt and I home from the radioactive-denial we are living in. If possible, I would ask that they hold off for a little bit longer.

Unlike my generation, the cold war taught our parents effectively to react to nukes (albeit, the variety that drops from the sky) in a more tangible way. Ads for fallout shelters and grade school bomb-drills were a real part of their lives in the 50’s and 60’s. Perhaps the instinct to run to the bunker is still well embedded in their minds and is now being triggered into action. Of course, if that’s the case, I’m not sure how it is that most Japanese people can remain so standstill calm. After all, they’re the ones that actually had the bomb dropped on them. Twice.

To wrap up, I wanted to draw attention to two separate stories. I came across this article the other day about a Tokyo family that is taking refuge in Toronto for a little while until things settle down back home:

It’s the first story I’ve read that covers the departure of nationals from the country, and I have to admit, it puzzled me. I’m not about to criticize anyone’s personal decision to leave if they feel that is what they want to do. It’s their family and their business. What irked me was the write-up itself. I’m not sure why the CBC chose, on the one month anniversary of the quake, to focus on a refugee family from a city that suffered little physical damage in comparison to the areas further north. This family is still intact, has not lost their home and still has functioning jobs and schools to return to. Obviously, the CBC wanted to draw attention to the Japanese reactions to the radiation issue, but could they not have found a lesser fortunate group of refugees in Canada, one who had actually lost their home or family or village or all of the above? It feels inappropriate that we should reach so far to pat ourselves on the back for helping a family that, according to the article, didn’t really need help in the first place. Then again, maybe I don’t know all the details and perhaps I am being too critical, but that was my very first impression, and when I reread the article today, my sentiments didn’t soften.

What frustrated me further about this piece were the comments that followed by other readers. People either took a positive position on Japanese asylum seekers to Canada, or a negative one, claiming that any day now the country would be overrun by millions of boat people. Both opinions show a general lack of understanding of the geography of the disaster situation and the cultural mindset of the Japanese people.

First of all, if they would only check the many reliable sources out there, they would see that areas outside the no-go zone are still very safe to breathe, eat and live in. Currently, there is still no sound reason for a mass exodus of people. Second, so far as I have gathered the last couple years living here, Japanese people don’t want to be Canadian. They want to be Japanese and most want to live and die in Japan. People here are proud of their nationality. If their country is broken, they are the type of people who want to be here to help fix it. On top of that there is a complex system of community, education and employment that is not easy to re-integrate into if you decide to leave on a long-term basis. It would take a whole other blog entry to talk about this-a very long one I might add-so I’ll leave it at that for now, but I tend to think that the family currently refuging in Toronto won’t be there for long. Their status within the Japanese system is even now at stake, which explains why the father is already back in Tokyo working and collecting his children’s homework. The invisible place one holds within the system here often takes precedence over all else, even over a few extra becquerel’s of radiation in your spinach.

Moving on, the second article is about a foreigner that decided to stay, even though she had a lot of good reasons to leave. It’s the article I wish the CBC had run instead of the one above. Please read it when you get the chance.

Thanks for following up, regardless of the gloomy themes as of late. I will do my best to switch writing gears when the time is right.

April 13, 2011

Three Weeks Later

On Friday, March 11th, I was sitting at my desk readying myself to go home for the weekend when a teacher came into the staff room and suddenly made an announcement. I was only able to pick up one word; jishin, or earthquake. This didn’t alarm me at all. In the two years we’ve lived here, I’ve experience at least 3 small earthquakes. Actually, probably more, but I’m a sound sleeper. In Japan, as frightening as they are, earthquakes are just a fact of life, so I didn’t think much of it at first. Then, in his broken English, my vice principal told me that a wave ten meters tall had hit the northern shores. I thought that he surely must be mistaken. Ten meters would put the water level over the second story of our own school, and really, how could that be possible? Surely he actually meant to say ten feet. Sadly, his estimate turned out to be true in some areas of the disaster zone, and low in other parts.

The internet-firewall at school prevented me from connecting to YouTube, and all the major English networks didn’t yet have substantial details on the damage, so initially it was hard to tell just how bad the whole thing was. Teachers in the staff room pulled out their cell phones and started to watch the live footage being televised over NHK. Actually, that was my first real indication that this was not just your average Japanese earthquake. Teachers at my school never watch TV on their cell phones, a) because they’re supposed to be working, and b) because it’s expensive. At this point, still not fully aware of the severity of the situation, I decided to write my parents a quick email just to let them know that we were fine. I’m glad I did. A short while later they were woken in the middle of the night by phone calls from relatives in various time zones concerned about our safety. That one email probably saved them some panic.

The next person I made sure to contact was Matthew. Everyone at school had been told to stay away from the shoreline as our town was expected to get a small tsunami, maybe under 2 feet tall, in the next few hours. For some people, this warning would be enough to make them head inland a bit, but for my husband, it was more likely to make him head for home to grab his surfboard. Thankfully, when I called he was not en route to the beach, but in the safe company of a work colleague watching the news coverage at a local bookstore. I made him promise me at least twice not to go surfing.

That was all more than three weeks ago. It’s hard to believe that since then, with all the horrible stories we’ve heard and the surreal footage we’ve spent hours watching, that I can wake up today and feel like everything is normal, even here in Japan. But why wouldn’t it be? How long did it really take for Facebook posts to go from being almost 98% about radiation readings and disaster fundraising events, to being surveys about whether Jon Hamm is hotter than Michael Buble? At least 8 days. Ok, maybe 9.

I would say that most English broadcasting companies have a catastrophic-disaster attention-span of about 2 weeks, which would explain the sharp decline in coverage by most of the major media outlets lately. The large exception is the national provider, NHK World, which to this day is still pouring out the details. One can’t really blame the rest of them though. Their job is to report international news, and of course there is more going on in the world right now than just the recovery of this country. Knowing all this, it didn’t surprise me when my dad told me the CBC was pulling its reporting team out of Japan. However, I was disappointed to learn that their apparent excuse was fear of a serious nuclear meltdown that might make it impossible for them to leave the country. I thought it was a bit absurd. A more valid reason would have been that clean water, food and fuel were hampering their team, but the idea that the whole country was going to radioactively implode and cause a mass exodus triggering the government to shut down all outgoing flights just didn’t seemed plausible to me. Were they confused about which country they were in? I wanted to tell them “You’re not in Libya, you’re in Japan.”

The people here are not about to just up and leave. Last week I asked a colleague what she would do if the readings rose significantly in Miyazaki. Her response was that she hoped she could stay with family somewhere further away in the countryside and that if there were shortages of food they could try to be as self-sufficient as possible. At no point did she mention taking the first flight to Australia, or smuggling herself onto a ship bound for the America’s. Unlike the local foreign community, the Japanese have only one home and feel a deeper obligation to their communities and their jobs, sometimes admittedly almost beyond reason. These are not a people who easily abandon ship. After all, history has shown that when the plane goes down, they tend to go down with it.

It shouldn’t be surprising then to hear that some people are refusing to leave their homes or even evacuation centers to be placed in refugee apartments around the country. Even though apartments have opened up in our prefecture, rumor has it that not all survivors are willing to come. After the tsunami destroyed everything they owned, the most valuable things they have left are surviving family and friends. Getting people to part with the familiar faces of their community, to be isolated somewhere far away and alone, is not as an appealing idea as you would first think. To illustrates an extreme example of this, here is an article from NHK about the people who refuse to leave the Fukushima no-go zone:

Back in our town, life goes on much as usual. While the people of Tokyo have been asked to exercise some considerate restraint when it comes to the seasonal cherry blossom viewing parties, I haven’t heard of anything like that in our prefecture. Actually, we just had hanami last Friday, and I have two more welcome parties scheduled this week to ring in the new business year. As usual, I feel a bit guilty about the excessiveness of these events, and at the same time I wonder if it would be fair cancel them and punish the small businesses that depend on these seasonal parties to stay afloat.

Matt is back out surfing every chance he gets. When I told my mom this, I could read her facial expression right through Skype. “You mean, surfing out in the water?!” Yes. Out in the water. Obviously, with recent reports of radioactive junk being voluntarily poured into the ocean by TEPCO, surfing might seem very unappealing right now, but the sea currents from the plant run away from us, so we hope our shores are being spared. As for the risk of another tsunami, Matt admits outright that if he was out catching waves, he would probably not hear the tsunami alarm and likely be swept away. He followed that with the remark “but what can you do? We all have to die.” As reckless as this sounds, it’s true. Of course, I don’t believe that anyone should put themself willingly in harm’s way, but then you have to ask yourself what exactly is harms way? Is it cliff jumping or driving your car on the highway? Is it climbing Mount Everest or is it drinking Japanese milk? Is it being dangerously overweight in America or is it surfing in Miyazaki? I take it that Matt doesn’t believe that surfing in questionable waters is harms way, and he’s not the only one, because there are a lot of surfers out there these days. Personally, I would have preferred if he had worded it “We all have live” instead. I can agree with that statement much more readily and the idea remains the same. It’s true, we all have to die. What’s most important though, is that we don’t forget to live.

Made In Japan

I am going to digress from my updates on the disaster issues plaguing Japan for a moment to introduce a new section of my blog. Made in Japan will chronicle my experience of being pregnant abroad. I am just entering into my 3rd trimester and so far have greatly benefited from the advice of family and friends. At this point in time I feel very little stress about the whole thing, and I think it has a lot to do with knowing what to expect…or at least thinking I know what to expect. 

Baby in progress

I anticipate that as time goes by my mood may change, and who knows if this atmosphere of peace will last. Still, in sharing what I have learned, I hope I might help other parents-to-be feel a little more reassured about their decision to stay and have their baby here in Japan. If you are interested, check it out!