Early this year, I boarded my first flight to Tokyo, Japan to study business abroad. I would be living about a forty-minute train commute from Shibuya -- perhaps the busiest sector of the city -- for an entire semester. My university was located in a separate part of the city, just a ten-minute train commute from the center of the action. This means I was front-and-center to a lot of nonstop action my entire time in Tokyo.
I learned a lot while studying abroad. Admittedly, I also had the assistance of classes to help with navigating culture and customs, but much of my education was developed through interaction with locals and observing what was around me. You would absolutely enjoy these humorous culture shocks I encountered by being in Japan for a little over three months.
(1) Is there something in the air?
I disembarked from my flight at around 10pm at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. Although I could see the glittering city just beyond the windows of its International Terminal, I found the late hour and language barrier too intimidating to deal to find an affordable hotel for the night. I imagined myself booking a suite online but becoming lost in the darkness, wandering downtown Tokyo with all of my luggage. Scary.
So, I settled in the terminal and fell asleep.
The next morning, I hailed a cab straight to campus; I was to attend an international university for three months. On the way to the building, we drove through many narrow streets and passageways. We passed people on their way to various places, and in my mind I tried to imagine a life for them.
One factor about many of them made me pause, examining them with confusion and a bit of apprehension.
Every few seconds or so, we would pass someone wearing a face mask. Exactly like the ones we commonly see currently to contain the spread of the Coronavirus. Mind you, my school semester abroad began mid-January, before the Coronavirus epidemic stalled travel across various countries. There’d been hardly any talk of the virus amongst anyone at the time. No one predicted it growing to the scope that it had. Yet, oddly enough, at that moment, I was concerned that there was some sort of air issue that everyone else had figured out but I hadn’t.
When I got to campus, I was given my documentation as well as instructions on how to properly register my residence card with my district’s ward office. In the preparation for the upcoming year, I forgot to ask the office about the abundance of face masks entirely. I even forgot to Google it, so engrossed in my mission to finally get to my dorm, unpack my luggage, and settle in.
I only remembered the masks the very next week, after spotting my counselor wearing one himself. By then, I had chalked the face masks up to a cultural difference, as I didn’t see that any Americans cared to wear them until him, but I still had no idea why they were so prevalent.
“You’re confused about this?” Paul said, when I asked him.
I nodded. “Is there something in the air?” I said. I had been thinking more along the lines of pollen or pollution, but Paul gave a short chuckle at my question.
“In Japan, everyone’s super conscientious of each other,” he said. “You wear a mask if you’re sick, or if you’re afraid of making someone else sick. It’s considered impolite if you don’t.”
“Oh!” I said. I literally spent over a week thinking some kind of toxin may have been wreaking havoc on my skin and bones. Or that people were trying to shield themselves from offensive odors. I couldn’t imagine it was very comfortable wearing a mask for the duration of an entire day. Now, at the height of COVID-19 in the United States, sometimes I forget to take mine off.
(2) What are these flimsy bags for?
In grocery stores, I noticed there would be flimsier, streamlined plastic containers lined up next to typical products. I had brought laundry detergent, soap, and lotion along with me to the country, so I never got a close enough look at the items that included them until it was time to deep clean my dorm.
I wandered into the mall hesitantly. We had only recently learned to read kanji in class. I was amazed at how much more straightforward purchasing products were after that. Once I was capable of pronouncing, as well as typing hiragana and katakana into my phone, many products were a no-brainer to figure out.
I purchased a container of laundry soap, then considered the plastic bag next to it. Both products bad the same exact design. The bottle’s plastic counterpart had a little nozzle at the top to cut off. Pour in, the instructions said.
The complete absence of something as simple as refillable liquid products in the United States meant I was far slower on the uptake than I should have been! Only about five or six slots on the store shelf were allotted to the hard plastic bottles. The remainder of the shelf space was dedicated to the other, far more recyclable or compostable bags meant to simply refill the first container and then put into recycling to reuse.
Imagine how much money that would save American companies, were more to adopt this method? Imagine how less waste that would produce. The concept was so, so simple, yet I had accepted the usual wasteful way as ordinary.
(3) Am I being kidnapped?
I mentioned before that Japan had narrow streets. What I did not mention was that during my first taxi ride, I was sincerely praying I had chosen a legitimate taxicab, because we made many, many tight turns into slender, seemingly off-the-grid streets. I found myself thinking over and over again that there was no possible way there were commercial buildings or even homes in the areas we passed through, and that I, a naive tourist, was being carted off into the unknown.
Needless to say my concern was more than a bit dramatic. As an American, super wide, busy city streets were the norm, even in commercial areas. Japan’s ordinary streets can be even smaller than an American alleyway. It is almost impractical to travel through Tokyo via car, because you will share the road with many people and bicycles until you make it to more of the downtown, bustling corporate offices and nightclubs.
(4) Bare minimum high fashion.
Did you know that Japanese fashion culture influenced many fashion subcultures we saw in the United States? Within just a day or two in Tokyo, I was uncomfortably aware of how desperately my wardrobe needed an upgrade. Japan’s “casual” clothes would put Westerners’ to shame. It was still winter as well, so many men and women were draped in thick, ankle-length, expensive-looking coats. My coat was expensive as well, but it was a coat fit to brave the deep, harsh Chicago winter, with a padded, feathered interior and furry collar. Japanese coats looked nothing like it. They were sleek, heavy peacoats of varying colors, but mostly soft neutrals and deep, rich hues.
Japanese people’s headwear, shoes, and other accessories were also absolutely pristine. Even the children’s school uniforms were sharply pressed and extremely high quality. I saw one small child holding a little attache case and wearing a tie and burgundy beret.
And there I was, in a university hoodie, jeans, beat-up gym shoes, and my coat fit for the North Pole. Needless to say, my wardrobe got an intense upgrade in Japan after that embarrassment. It’s a great thing I’m such a quick study.
(5) Fruit fever.
One evening, a new friend of mine came to tell me that she’d seen one of her dormmates purchase a container of strawberries that added up to about one-thousand yen, or ten U.S. dollars. She and I shared collective confusion. 'Who’d pay that much for a simple container of strawberries?' we thought. For the size of the container, it couldn’t have been more than $4 or $5 back in the United States.
My knowledge of fruit nativity and agriculture as it relates to international trade had been completely lost on me at that moment. We learned later in class that, in Japan, strawberries were considered a special treat as they had to be imported from overseas. Not only were strawberries a lot more expensive in Tokyo than in Chicago, strawberry-flavored candies and pastries were also marked higher than other places, and there was a large abundance of different kinds. In Harajuku, there was even a store for young teens and girls dedicated solely to strawberry products!
On that same tour in Harajuku, my guide passed me a drink. It was a carbonated water beverage, but “litchi”-flavored. My guide, who was a Japanese man of Indian-descent, was appalled that I had no idea what that fruit was. There was a deep niggling in the back of my mind, however, that at least the appearance of said fruit was a bit familiar.
“Litchi!” he kept repeating. “You really don’t know litchi?”
I shrugged. “No,” I told him, confused at what more he could possibly want from me. I made a mental note to Google the fruit later, however.
Later, I actually did remember to Google it. It turned out that “litchi” was this brand’s way of spelling “lychee” fruit, which I was definitely familiar with. However, I hadn’t ever tasted lychee at any point of my life until then, so I endeavored to know why it wasn’t as commonly bought in the United States like cherries, strawberries, or apples.