Culture COUNTERshock in Japan

I’ve heard and read a lot about “culture shock“, I am also familiar with “reverse culture shock” (when one must re-adjust to one’s native culture), but I have never found any description of what I call “culture countershock”. What do I mean by “culture countershock”? Allow me to illustrate…

Japan is one of the stereotypical countries where ‘Westerners’ experience culture shock. In Japan, I found these stereotypes sometimes annoying. For example, one time a Japanese woman refused to tell me where the nearest bathroom was because she said they are all “Japanese-style” toilets and that I couldn’t use them. Well excuse me, after living in Taiwan (where they have ‘Japanese-style’ toilets) for years, I was used to using them, and I NEEDED TO PEE!!! On the other hand, these stereotypes amused me – like people everywhere I’ve visited in East Asia (except Hong Kong), Japanese people found it surprising that I could use chopsticks (I’ve been using chopsticks since I was four years old – it’s as natural to me as using a spoon and fork).

But there were some things in Japan which caught me so much by surprise that it took me a while to get used to them…

– Japanese people drink water straight from the tap. When I was at my first hostel in Osaka, I asked where the drinking water was, and at first I didn’t believe them when they said I could get drinking water from the sink. There’s even a sign in the hostel which tells people “YOU CAN GET DRINKING WATER FROM THE SINK” for guests like me.
– Japanese people put used toilet paper in the toilet bowl, not in the wastebasket. It took me a while to get used to putting toilet paper in the toilet bowl, even with the help of signs in the hostel which said “DON’T PUT TOILET PAPER IN THE WASTEBASKET”.
– I was surprised by how many white people there were in Japan, particularly Kyoto. I hadn’t seen so many white people in one place for years.
– The ideograph writing system (kanji) was natural and relatively easy to understand. The writing system based on phonetics (kana), by contrast, is weird and difficult to understand – knowing how a word is pronounced isn’t nearly as useful as knowing what the word means.
– Japanese people kept on asking me about my chopsticks – not that I was using chopsticks, they were asking about the actual chopsticks. They asked me where I got them, and then suggested that I use a different set of chopsticks.

For those who haven’t figured out what the deal with the chopsticks is, the explanation is: I brought my Taiwanese chopsticks to Japan. Like many Taiwanese chopsticks, they are metal. Metal is cheap and durable. Japanese people, apparently, are not comfortable with metal chopsticks, so much so that even watching someone else use metal chopsticks is a problem.

You might notice that all of these things I found ‘weird’ about Japan have nothing to do with me being an American. They have everything to do with the fact that I had been in Taiwan for years. Japan clashed more with my Taiwanese habits than my American habits. Had I gone to Japan straight from the United States without ever going to Taiwan, I wouldn’t have experienced any of the above as ‘weird’. I wouldn’t have experienced the last thing at all.

In other words, “culture countershock” is culture shock which one experiences because it clashes with a nonnative culture one adjusted to, even though it doesn’t clash with one’s native culture.

10 thoughts on “Culture COUNTERshock in Japan

  1. The episode that the person wouldn’t tell you where the washroom was sounds funny (sorry if you are very serious). I’ve never heard of it.

    Though, I’ve done the other way around about flusing toilet paper in the West (it got stuck!) My bad. (>_<)

    • It wasn’t very serious, because I figured out where the toilet was on my own a minute later. It simply would have been more convenient if she would have told me where it was when I asked.

  2. See, people always talk about culture shock in Japan and use the example of toilets or driving on the “wrong” side of the street, but I’ve always been way more tripped up by the small stuff. For example, I remember going to the grocery store and spending 30 minutes trying to find the salt. (As it turns out, salt is not put with other spices but rather with soy sauce and other “cooking basics.” Sugar, similarly, is with cooking basics, not with baking goods.)

    Also, about toilets, I learned how to use Japanese-style ones very early because it meant that I never had to wait for the bathroom at my language school (2 of us knew how to use Japanese-style; everyone else was too scared). Unfortunately, people still try to cut in front of me in line for the bathroom because they assume I can’t use the squatters.

    Also, thank goodness, I finally know who puts the toilet paper in the wastebasket. I’ve always wondered who those signs are supposed to be targeting. (Although not as much as the “don’t use a squatting toilet like a Western toilet and vice-versa” signs that include helpful diagrams.)

    • Navigating a grocery store in an unfamiliar country often can be time-consuming in my experience.

      I’m actually surprised that only two people at your language school learned how to use the squatters – it’s not like it’s *that* hard to learn how to use them, and I would expect them to be interested in learning about Japanese society. They aren’t as common in Taiwan as they are in Japan, but when they’re the only toilets available, it’s good to know how to use them.

      If you ever visit Taiwan, you’ll get to experience putting toilet paper in the wastebasket yourself. Either that, or you’ll experience having to apologize to somebody for messing up their plumbing. Actually, I’m putting toilet paper in the wastebasket at home for the very same reason – nobody in my family wants to bother fixing the plumbing as long as it functions without toilet paper.

      • A lot of people complained that using the squatters was hard on their knees–it was the same complaints I heard from people who had trouble sitting in seiza. There were also complaints that they were “scary” or made people feel like they were going to fall into the toilet. Oh well, shorter bathroom lines for me.

      • Well, there is a reason the squatting toilets often come with grab bars (actually, it’s generally a good idea for any kind of toilet to have grab bars). Even though I don’t currently have knee problems and I wasn’t concerned about falling into the toilet, I find the grab bars helpful.

        You know, I realized, Taiwanese people don’t make nearly as big a deal about the squatters as Japanese people. It seems that, in Japan, it’s a part of their cultural identity, and they assume that it’s one of the things which makes Japan different from anybody else. Squatting toilets aren’t really a part of Taiwan’s cultural identity, and nobody makes a fuss about foreigners using squatters because, well, what is there to make a fuss about? They have squatting toilets in America/Europe/etc., don’t they?

  3. Culture countershock is a good find. I have experienced that going from Taipei to Shanghai.
    My Chinese culture countershocks included:
    – finding people very rude. They’re not. I got used to manners in Shanghai, it’s just that Taiwanese people are so friendly. Also Taiwan has some Japanese-style politeness and customer-service practices that are not common in China.
    – finding people didn’t care much that I was a Westerner.
    – freedom! I found Shanghai more “anything goes” and less regimented than Taipei. Not in every way, obviously, but it was a surprise for me.

  4. Pingback: Sara, you’re doing it wrong, you stopped using toilet paper! | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

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