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8 Surprising Things Japanese People Forget While Living Abroad

忘れたー I forgot!

This list was originally compiled by a writer at Madame Ririーa website dedicated to Japanese people either living abroad, or are interested in international communication, lifestyles and so on. This particular author lives in France, and though some of her points are either incorrect or irrelevant for some nations, I thought it was a pretty interesting summary. So I present to you 8 Surprising Things Japanese People Forget While Living Abroad: a list of quirks and customs that they forgetーor simply readjust toーwhile living outside of Japan.

1. What Heisei year is it again?

Japan has two ways of counting yearsーthe Western system of 1974, 1991, 2014, etc, and the Japanese system, which is based on the number of years the Emperor is on the throne. For example: 2014 is known as 平成 (Heisei) 26. The current emperor Akihiro succeeded the throne on January 8, 1989 and is therefore the same day the Heisei era started. The era before that, the 昭和 (Showa) era, ended on January 7th of 1989ーShowa year 64ーthe day the former emperor Hirohito passed away. Upon his death, emperor Hirohito was posthumously named Showa, which means “bright peace” or less literally, “enlightened harmony”. When emperor Akihito dies, the current Heisei era will change to something else. Basically a bunch of old dudes decide what it’ll be when he passes.

Since each era length depends on the reign of the emperor, it varies greatlyーfor example the Taisho era lasted only from 1912 to 1926. (The first part of “Massan” is set in the Taisho era). Thankfully Japan uses both Western and the Japanese systems, but the Japanese system is often used for official documents and is thus quite important. I can definitely understand people living abroad not being able to keep track though, as they won’t need it!

2. Restlessly checking the time

The author of the original article lives in France, and says people seldom look at their clocks worrying about the time or rush about. She says “if you put it negatively, you’d say ‘lazy’, but if you look at it positively, it means ‘you can take it easy’.” I’m not sure I completely agree (unless she’s in the south, perhaps). Having lived there, I can certainly agree appointment times can be a bit looser, but I wouldn’t say that keeping time isn’t considered important. It’s not polite to arrive too early (unlike Sweden and Japan), but otherwise it’s a difference in priorities: you take time to talk with people, to have dinner with family and friends. Time is valued differently.

 3. Keigo, Kenjyougo, Teineigo, etc.

Japanese is well known for being tricky to navigate at the best of times. One of the reasons is because of the multiple levels of politeness: 敬語 (keigo – using honorifics, terms of respect), 謙譲語 (kenjyougo – humble speech) and 丁寧語 (teineigo – polite speech:masu, desu forms etc) are all, frankly, a pain in the butt to learn how to use correctly. Many younger Japanese people don’t use it properly, which can cause issues when they’re job hunting or starting out at their first job. Being able to use these levels of politeness according to the people you speak with is still a sign of a good upbringing, and shows you are willing to do what is required to keep communication smooth at work especially when dealing with company clients. The author says that since it’s not something that’s always used daily while overseasーunless you’re in a Japanese-language working environmentーit’s sometimes difficult to remember the correct form when you need it. (I’m glad I’m not the only one, ha!)

4. Sitting on the ground

It’s not uncommon to sit on the floor in Japan. It may be a remnant of customs brought on by tatami flooring (the less furniture the better in tatami rooms, especially chairs will ruin the woven mat) or due to lack of space (seriously, chairs take up a lot of room), or something else entirely. Traditional Japanese homes have tatami mat flooringーas do fancier modern homes, but usually in just one room (usually reserved for receiving guests in that case)ーand it’s partly due to this Japanese people have a custom to sitting down on the floor (on a cushion usually, of course). Tatami mats are softer than wood or marble, and certainly smell nicer! However, they are not the best option when you have a lot of furnitureーtables, chairs, a chest of drawersーall of these damage the mats (especially chairs) since they are moved around a lot. Also, in school, when kids are asked to gather round, they usually sit knees tucked up on the floor of the classroomーor outside on the field if it’s P.E. class. It’s nothing strange or weirdーyou can even see people crouching in the street or on the train, but that’s crossing the etiquette rulesーplease don’t do that.

5. The passenger seat is on the left-hand side

Since the author is in France, the passenger seat is on the opposite side of where it would be in Japan. (Had she moved to the UK, India, Indonesia, Australia, or a number of other countries that drive on the left, this wouldn’t be an issue.) She (and other commenters) commented on sometimes trying to get in on the wrong side of the car. I can definitely relate to that! ^^;

 6. Stocking up on Mugicha

麦茶 (mugicha – barley tea) is a standard drink always on hand in Japan, especially in summer. This is a staple in many Japanese homesーand I can’t blame them, it’s delicious! (Though I prefer it hot, in winter. Mmmm!) The author mentions the French equivalent being mineral water, which makes sense.

7. How fast people type on their cell phones

The author of this article commutes mainly by car, unlike most urban commuters in Japan, who travel by train. (Don’t I know itーeveryone always seems to be on mine in the morning, ha!) Living abroad and traveling by car, it’s easy to forget old customs and habitsーlike sitting on the train and speedily typing away messages to friends or coworkers while traveling. An addition from me: in the opposite direction, when I go back to Sweden or France, I am reminded that people happily take and make phone calls on the bus/train. While it’s not *that* prevalent, I find that I learn a lot of things about other people that I really, really didn’t need to know. ^^;

8. When asked “You don’t drink wine?” and answering “I don’t drink”

This one’s only tricky if you focus on the body language: When answering “You don’t drink?”, people often shake their heads when they say “No, I don’t”, to confirm their negative response. But often in Japan people will nod when they say “No I don’t”, because they’re affirming what the questioner asked: You don’t drink? -> Yes, that’s right, (nod): I don’t drink. <- The responder doesn’t say the whole sentence, only the last part. As is often the case with Japanese, a lot is in the context and it’s up to the receiver/listener to try to figure out the meaning of the speaker.

And there we have eight customs from Japan that some Japanese people forget or find tricky while they’re abroad!

Are there any customs or quirks from back home that you have “forgotten” while living in another country?



13 responses to “8 Surprising Things Japanese People Forget While Living Abroad”

  1. I truly love traveling. I find your post funny with a smile.
    Mr.MakingUsmile recently posted…Cold Weather Tips for any Snow Storm

  2. Helen says:

    Ha! We live here and my husband is always forgetting what year it is in Heisei. Mind you, he also forgets what year it is in the Western calendar…

    • Ri says:

      Hahaha!! True, true-the Heisei thing is applicable just as much in Japan in general… as for forgetting both, I’m the same as your husband there. Keep catching myself writing “2014” everywhereーand although I like to think I’ll get used to writing 2015… it didn’t work that way last year, heh. :p

  3. Marta says:

    When I go back to Spain and I have to meet someone I forget in Spain if you are meeting at 10 then it means everybody will start arriving after 10:15… we are extremely unpunctual!
    Marta recently posted…Don’t leave your boyfriend home alone

    • Ri says:

      Haha, I’ve heard that’s the case! When I went to visit a friend in Zaragoza I was surprised at how late everything wentーeating dinner at 10pm was too crazy for me! (Not about punctuality, but just reminded me of that. :))

  4. One thing I noticed is drivers in Canada ALWAYS stop at crosswalks if there is a pedestrian. Pedestrians always have the right of way. It took me awhile to get back to this mentality and it was definitely a new concept for my husband.
    Constance – Foreign Sanctuary recently posted…Taking Taiwan By Storm: 1600 Paper Pandas and 200 Paper Formosan Black Bears

  5. Thanks for sharing, it’s interesting to think about it from the opposite perspective. I still make mistakes about which door to get into, which is embarrassing. Especially when I’m driving.

    I was curious, do you know how the changing of the year is handled? Once 2015 started, did Heisei 27 start? Or does it only become Heisei 27 after Jan 8th?
    Miyagi Mermaid recently posted…November Wedding

    • Ri says:

      Haha, I used to do that when I was driving here as well! (I’m sure I would again, I just never seem to get in cars at all these days. XD)

      That’s a really interesting question! even though the first day of Heisei started on the 8th, it seems that the years after all start on January 1st, to coincide with the calendar year. (I had to ask around and double check on that one, YJ was no help, haha!)

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