Cultural differences apparent to student in Japan

July 12, 2005|by Amanda Yazdani

Editor's note: Amanda Yazdani, a student from Hagerstown, is living in Obihiro, Japan, for a year through a foreign exchange program. She will share her experiences in an occasional column on the Next page.

OBIHIRO, Japan - The sakura (cherry) blossoms have come and gone. A few petals still linger on the pavement, since a strong rain hasn't come since they fell from the trees.

Although the sakura are supposed to be the heralds of good weather, the days are often still chilly, and the wind still gusts.

Hopefully, things will warm up soon. It's a bit discouraging still seeing your breath in the morning when you know home has warmer weather.


A few interesting points I've noticed this month:

  • Doughnuts are never eaten for breakfast in Japan. Also, Japanese doughnuts are smaller, subtly sweet and more cakelike than the supersweet ones from Krumpe's Do-Nut Shop in Hagerstown.

  • Many adults do not know what a DVD is.

  • Japanese young people are some of the loudest and most outgoing people I have ever met.

  • Short hair is very popular. All of the girls in volleyball club have the same haircut - think Spock with layers. I had to keep myself from laughing when I realized.

That brings me to an important point. Although I've read countless Japan travel guides and all my preparation materials from the exchange organization, it still takes living here for an extended time - in my case, twice - to really grasp the "groupism" that resounds in Japanese culture. In America, the individual is important, but in Japan, the group is supreme, whether that be your class, your company or your country.

But back to the haircut issue. It wasn't their particular haircuts that made me chuckle. It was the fact that they all, even the first-year students who had only been doing volleyball for a month and a half or so, had this haircut and therefore were such a perfect example of Japanese groupism.

So, this groupism makes being a foreigner here a little difficult, since by definition you are "outside the group."

(The Japanese word for foreigner is gai-koku-jin, which literally means "outside country person." The shortened and slightly derogatory form is gai-jin, which means "outside person.")

That's not to say I've been ostracized. These are just generalizations, and certainly don't apply to everyone.

I've joined a club, Tea Ceremony, which in Japanese is Sa-dou, "The Way of Tea," which meets twice a week. I've also made friends in my class, including some with whom I go to the city after school. I've even made friends outside of my class and outside my year.

I've been going to karaoke a lot lately. Karaoke in Japan is completely different than American karaoke. It's not public. You're in a small room with friends, with a karaoke machine, benches, and a table in the middle. I mostly go with the other exchange students in my area. Three of us live near a large shopping center that has an arcade with a karaoke place, and a caf. We frequent the place, they know our faces, and we have a usual room.

So for two hours or so, we sing, mostly in English, and talk. It's a relatively cheap way to have fun. It's a national pastime of sorts - most Japanese go often. It's something I'll miss once I'm back in America.

Well, here's a parting message to the class of 2005: Omedetou gozaimasu - heartfelt congratulations!

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