This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of Connect.
Thomas Coleman (Hyogo)
If you have ever been in earshot of any foreigners who have lived in Japan, you’ve probably heard references to the horrors of Japanese bureaucracy and its dreaded accomplice. . . paperwork. This was the first thing that tripped me up when I first arrived in Japan. Man, does everyone seem to love filling out forms!
One experience stands out among the rest. During my first week at my workplace, a member of the office staff came over to my desk and handed me some documents to fill in. Standard stuff. However, one section in particular caught my eye. Above a blank box was the word “Map.” Perplexed, I turned to the staff member and inquired as to what was expected of me. She proceeded to tell me that I was to draw a map of my route to work in said box. I unintentionally laughed, assuming she was joking. Yet, I received nothing but a serious look in return, also now slightly concerned that I wasn’t taking my task seriously. With no other questions, I was left scratching my head about what to do. I eventually decided to just print out a screenshot of Google Maps and hoped that covered it. I haven’t received any complaints since, so that seems to have done the trick. It looks like paperwork problems require modern solutions!
All jokes aside, while paperwork seems to be everywhere in Japan and can at times be cumbersome, I’ve come to respect how well documented everything tends to be over here. There are times where it can be stressful, yes, but I’ve also grown to feel more secure after completing it. Like any kind of culture shock, you eventually get into the rhythm of it. So bring it on Japan, paperwork fatigue won’t get me down!
Thomas is a third-year JET from the U.K. who is currently working as an ALT at two senior high schools in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture. As a humanities graduate, he has a keen interest in history and culture, and loves travelling around and exploring Japan’s abundance of historical sites. Alongside these adventures, he also enjoys studying Japanese, playing video games and has even picked up kendo, too!
Jenny Chang (Nara)
Being an Asian American on the JET Programme, my initial experience of navigating life in Japan may have differed from the experiences of those who looked more foreign. Needless to say, with a mask on, I blended in with the Japanese population and was naturally expected to understand and speak the language.
However, when I first arrived in Japan in June of 2020, I hadn’t learned any Japanese in the traditional sense. In fact, my Japanese language ability was a combination of knowing some Chinese because it’s my first language, self-studying hiragana and katakana prior to my departure, and having watched countless school-life anime as a kid. Miraculously, I could understand about 50% of what people were saying to me, but I really struggled to respond in Japanese.
That was my initial culture shock. Wherever I went (a convenience store, a restaurant, any type of shop) people expected me to be able to communicate with them. So, in the beginning, it was a lot of looking confused and having awkward staring contests with the staff. Although it was a bit of a struggle, overall, I found it quite entertaining to see the confused frown on people’s faces that had “Why aren’t you responding to me?” written all over them. In order to clear up the confusion, one of the first phrases I learned was: 私は外国人です。日本人じゃない。(Watashi wa gaikokujin desu. Nihonjin janai.) which means: “I am a foreigner. I’m not Japanese.” Ever since, the light bulb usually goes off in their head and we just have a good laugh at the situation.
Funnily enough, I was recently asked to make a sign for my table at work because I’m the first person people see when they enter the office. Visitors kept coming up to me, asking me if so-and-so is here or where they can find so-and-so, but I usually didn’t know anything. So, in a way, this sign is my “Watashi wa gaikokujin desu. Nihonjin janai.” sign.
Jenny is a third-year ALT in Nara Prefecture, beer and coffee enthusiast, and professional napper. Despite constantly going through an identity/existential crisis, she tries her best to fight it by travelling and finding the little joys in life. Overall, she’s a bit odd, but if you give her a chance, she just might surprise you.
What the heck is a cash card?
Holly Walder (Gunma)
When I first opened my bank account and received the card with a cute mascot staring up at me, I wondered what on Earth it was for. I knew that Japan, especially in the more rural areas, is still a “cash society,” so having cash would be more important than it was back home in the U.K. I still remember using cash back home. . . sometime around 2016? But I had never seen a cash card before. I showed my mum and she said she hadn’t seen one since the 70s!
This was my first introduction to the vast differences in financial culture between Japan and my home country. From there, I had difficulties with using an international card for purchases online, struggles with paying in instalments, lack of access to credit cards (and therefore ETC cards), and frustrations with the extra little fees that keep popping up for things that I would not have been charged for at home.
To be honest, this is the one “culture shock” that hasn’t dissipated over time. I am still often left wondering why certain transactions—so simple to do back home—are incredibly difficult here. I am continuing to encounter problems, but that’s OK. Each new problem gives me the tools to deal with the next one. And if there is one silver lining, it has made each transaction more visible, and the need for good budgeting more apparent.
Holly is a second-year JET in Gunma Prefecture from the UK. She’s the Fashion Section Editor for CONNECT. She enjoys photography, writing, and sings the praises of Skype Numbers for managing finances back home.
The unspoken “no”
Sofia de Martin (Kagoshima)
It was once explained to me that “Unless you hear an enthusiastic ‘yes,’ the answer is ‘no.’”
Few cultures have quite the aversion to denying a request as what we see in Japan. Simply saying “no” is terribly impolite, so people rely on indirect ways to reject your request. As someone who is not great at reading between the lines, since arriving, ordinary conversations with locals have become veritable minefields. Instead of an outright denial, the common phrases muzukashii. . . (it’s difficult. . .), tabun (maybe. . .), or chotto (“a little. . .) will make their appearance. This is, apparently, our cue to drop the subject.
Even proficient English speakers will fall back on the unspoken denials and subtle misdirection used in their native language. This has been the case for me when attempting to make plans, both social and for my lessons. Hearing “I’ll think about it,” “maybe we can,” and even “that’s interesting,” are all likely to be denials.
So what can we do to avoid a social faux pas? Make sure you clarify. If you are not certain, and occasionally even if you are, make sure you and the person you are talking to are on the same page. Misunderstandings will happen regardless of language and culture, the important thing is that you are working to bridge the cultural gap.
Sofia is a British ALT based in Kagoshima. She’s part of the Copy Editor team for CONNECT Magazine. In her free time, she likes travelling, sports, and learning new things.
Curly Hair Crisis
Dianne Yett (Gunma)
Every year around July-August, the JET Ladies+ Facebook group gets a deluge of posts from new JETs panicking about all the hair they are losing and asking for advice on what to do, how to mitigate it, or where to find these fancy shower filters that are supposed to help it. As a person with fine curly hair, the feelings of panic are completely valid.
I remember reading a lot of these posts when I first arrived back in 2019, and I did notice the larger-than-expected wads of hair coming off my head. I got really into hair care and the Curly Girl Method. I scoured through online product listings, seeking the right products for my hair type because there was no way I’d find curly hair products in a Japanese grocery store. Eventually, I decided, “Fuck it,” and shaved my whole head.
There are lots of potential causes for that initial hair loss many JETs experience in their first months. The prevailing theory is that many people are not used to Japanese summer. They might be from a place with a cooler or dryer climate. Then they come to Japan where it’s extremely hot and oppressively humid, and how do their bodies react? By shedding hair to help cool off. It’s natural to lose more hair in the hot seasons, especially if you have curly hair.
Obviously, if you are getting bald spots, then you should think about seeing a doctor. Otherwise, just ride the summer out, maintain a healthy hair routine—maybe get a shower filter if it helps—and let your body adjust to the new environment.
Dianne is a fifth-year JET ALT in Gunma Prefecture. She wears a lot of hats—the foremost of which is being the current Head Editor of CONNECT Magazine. She enjoys writing, digital art, long-distance cycling, and shaving her head in her sweaty shower room while blasting Ava Max.