People ask me about Japan often enough that I've started to gather some information together on these pages in the hopes that someone finds it useful. I've lived in Japan for a few years, and I typically go back every year for a month to spend time with friends and family, and go hiking on Shikoku, the smallest of the four main Japanese islands.
The things people ask me about fall into two broad categories: traveling in Japan and speaking Japanese. I've tried to organize these pages into useful information on those two topics. Despite the time I've spent in Japan, I don't consider myself an expert by any means. I am still learning, every day. There are lots of resources available on the web with travel guides and language help that are better than I can put together here. This is mostly just my personal experiences and opinions.
Any discussion of Japan will fall short if it doesn't start with some kind of overview of Japanese culture. This is a complicated subject, and probably deserves its own section. Let me touch on a few items of special significance here, and I'll try to write a more complete guide later.
The first, and perhaps most important, thing to understand about Japanese culture is that it's a cooperative or group-oriented society, instead of an individual society like the United States. The depth of this concept is difficult to completely comprehend, and it sometimes manifests itself in strange and unusual ways. While Americans strive to differentiate themselves from their peers to get ahead, the Japanese strive to conform to the society around them, and those who don't conform tend to be ostracized. This is clearly evident in a well known Japanese proverb that reads "The nail that sticks out will be hammered down." Japanese society is largely homogeneous. People mostly act and react the same way. People are polite. People are kind. Once you live in a society like Japan, it's very hard to adjust to American life again.
Japan is also a gift-giving culture. When we travel to Japan, our suitcases don't have much in the way of clothing or personal effects; we have all those things at our home in Japan. We mostly just travel with a pile of gifts for other people. They reciprocate by giving us gifts, both in Japan and when they visit us in America. This practice can sometimes be annoying, but it does serve to promote and continue the polite and cooperative culture of the country.
The Japanese have a special appreciation for craftsmanship that has sadly largely disappeared in American culture. While we seem to be content with buying a dozen mass produced bowls for $3.00, the Japanese are willing to pay $20.00 for a single bowl made by hand, by someone who takes pride in their work. The concept of apprentice and master is still alive and well in Japan, and the skill exhibited by the masters is really stunning.
This concept seems to extend to fruits and vegetables, as well. I've seen farmers in Japan in their fields placing little squares of paper under growing squash to prevent them from lying in the dirt. The farmer told me he turns them every few days so each side gets the same amount of sun. Fruit is expensive in Japan, but it's absolutely perfect. Strawberries are packed into special containers where each strawberry is in its own special compartment to keep them from getting bruised. Melons are regularly packaged in elaborate padded boxes, and while I was there, a perfectly matched air of melons sold for around $25,000.00. Not all fruit is quite that expensive, of course, but even a common apple costs around $3.00. The positive aspect of that is that there's not a lot of food waste. If you pay $3.00 for a single apple, you're much more likely to eat the apple.
There's also a strange commitment to engineering that's difficult to describe. Japanese are committed to solving problems beyond any reasonable expectation. There are several examples of this, from the story of the first automatic rice cooker to boots that don't slip on ice (really!). I need to think about this a bit more to properly express what happens in Japan, but it really is unique. It also shows up in science. More on this later.
This is a complicated subject. Let's start with the official story. According to the Japanese Constitution, Japan has no official religion and the Japanese people enjoy complete religious freedom. In reality, most Japanese are both Shinto and Buddhist, although one can easily make the argument that neither is a real religion, and both are actually philosophies. The philosophy of Shintoism is "Coexistence with nature" or "Living in harmony with nature." This is unmistakable as you travel through Japan. You commonly see trees propped up with bracing to keep them growing straight. More on this later
The philosophy of Buddhism is a little more complicated to explain. Once you get it, you understand. In American terms, Buddhism is most easily explained by "there is no spoon." Again, you either understand that or not, and that explanation is a little reference to American culture.
In any case, neither "religion" or philosophy has an absolute concept of God, and that allows them to happily coexist. And they can both coexist with proper religions like Christianity or Islam. Shintoism has an ethereal concept of God, but the basis is still in living in harmony with nature. Buddhism has no real concept of God. Maybe I'll expand on this later. For now, you can use the links on the left to explore traveling in Japan, or the Japanese language, depending on your interests.
Although bad things can happen to you anywhere in the world, Japan is one of the safest places on the planet. Many years ago while traveling in Japan, I bought more than my suitcase could hold, so I bought a new bag for the excess. When I left, I pulled my bags out to the sidewalk and waited for the bus to come and take me to the airport. The bus came, I loaded my luggage and got on the bus, and half way to the airport it occurred to me that I had left my new bag of goodies sitting on the sidewalk. The extra bag was new, so it didn't register with me that it was mine.
A couple weeks later, I was talking with a friend of mine in Japan and I relayed the story to her. She said "Hold on, I'll call the hotel, I'm sure they have your bag." After a few minutes, she called back and apologized because they didn't have my bag. I told her not to worry, I didn't expect them to have it, as I had left it on the sidewalk in front of the hotel. She said "On the sidewalk? Oh, let me call them back." Two weeks after I left a bag on the sidewalk, it was still there, sitting on the sidewalk. True story.
Japanese children are taught that if they find (the equivalent of) a 5 cent coin on the sidewalk, they should take it to the local police box and report it as found property. The police pull out all the paperwork and diligently fill it out. This is a concept that the Japanese are trained in from birth, and follows them throughout their life. If you lose something in Japan, it is likely waiting for you somewhere, probably at the nearest police box.
When I moved to Japan, I had to buy a small gas stove for my house, and I bought a small section of gas line hose to hook it up. When the gas man came to hook everything up, he started asking my Japanese assistant why I had bought a section of gas line hose. She said "In America, they make you pay for everything." The gas man was stunned, and explained that I should try to get a refund. This entire conversation went on in Japanese, mostly ignoring me, despite my Japanese assistant knowing that my Japanese was good enough to understand.
Again, bad things can and do happen in Japan, but in general, people will not cheat you, they won't steal from you, they won't "mess" with you. The Japanese have a great deal of respect for their fellow humans.