Thursday, July 15, 2010

Rick's Roadshow: Tokyo, Japan Day 3 A Few Recollections

My brief visit to Japan was indeed quite memorable. As this was an important business trip, I prepared several weeks in advance, carefully brushing up on Japanese business customs and local culture to ensure I would not offend anyone during my travels. For example, the art of bowing is quite important and taken seriously throughout Japan. It is a necessary form of showing respect, as well as the basic hello and goodbye greeting. Also, when visiting someone or having a business meeting, it is typical to exchange a small gift, taking great care for how it is gift wrapped and presented.

Other interesting customs include never showing the bottom of your feet, not touching ones head, avoid being loud or drawing attention to oneself are all considered hallmarks of Japanese respect. While most Japanese do not expect Westerners to fully understand all of their customs, they greatly appreciate when an effort is made to do so.

When I first arrived in Japan I was struck by how clean Tokyo is, despite its twelve million residents. During my travels I never saw any litter or graffiti, chewing gum on sidewalks and no fowl smells whilst walking in the city. The Japanese take great pride in their country. In fact the Japanese are exceptionally clean people, both with their own personal hygiene and the care they take of facilities in which they live.

I quite enjoyed the cuisine as well; regular readers may recall that I've enjoyed most sushi for a number of years, so that was not difficult for me. However, its jnot just about sushi! Japanese noodles, rice bowls and beef are all quite typical on the everyday menu for the Japanese. After spending several days with colleagues, I learned how to eat noodles and soup. The “slurping sound” while eating noodles especially is not only expected, it is a sign you are enjoying the meal. As many Japanese do not speak while eating, (or at least as much as Americans do) the slurping sound is a sort of rhythmic melody of happiness in a dining room.

I was also taken back by the incredible service and warm hospitality I experienced virtually everywhere in Japan. I was staying at a large hotel with 40 floors; which meant a lot of guests. Yet I felt as though I were the only guest in the hotel. I was greeted by name, and anything I requested was brought at a moment’s notice. Being American I am well versed in the art of tipping. In the US you need to tip everyone for most everything. Side note- in Egypt, tipping is even much more critical, where frequent tipping is expected for virtually everything. Japan is exactly the opposite: No tipping is accepted or expected anywhere, for anything. I found this difficult to adjust to, as I was continually asking for all sorts of little things, which they happily provided- with no expectation of anything in return.

The country is run very efficiently- its public trains always run precisely on time, city maintenance is exceptional, and all the electronics make life much easier. Traffic however, is the scourge of Tokyo. It takes forever to ride by car in the city; and therefore taxis are quite expensive. The Japanese economy may be a mess, but one would never know it. In the US, when governments struggle financially, they crumble under budget cuts. Lawns cease to be watered, civic services are cut, and you often see visible signs of decay. Not so in Japan.

One final observation- Japanese love their dogs. Particularly small dogs. And by small I mean tiny. Tiny everything is good in Japan. When in doubt about anything, just say “tiny” or “so cute”. It always makes them smile. Well back to the dogs. Japanese women love having tiny dogs they can pamper, have groomed regularly and feed really good quality food. In some ways well groomed dogs are status symbols, as labels and brands are very important in Japan. But truly, they love their dogs, as family members. And in my mind, any culture that lo e dogs as family members are OK by me.

As I head to Korea, I look back fondly on my brief time in Japan and already look forward to my return. Japan is a wonderful country full of the unexpected and then some.

-Rick Rockhill


KathyA said...

Do you know why is it gauche to touch one's head?
Very interesting and so very respectful of you to learn their etiquette before visiting.

Desert Songbird said...

I'm very late in reading and commenting on this, but I'm catching up (again!). I took a Cultural Negotiations class in grad school, and I was always fascinated with the customs of different cultures. It has made me a bit more sensitive to why some people get offended by something that seems innocuous to me or Americans in general. Or at least, I try to be. ;)


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