All cultures revert to patterns and prescribed ways of doing and acting. Some cultures highly value tradition and some highly value innovation. There are pros and cons to each path.
On graphs that show typical cultural mindsets, Japan and the U.S. often fall on completely opposite ends of the spectrum. One example of this is that the U.S. often embraces a new and unique way of doing something. Whether it is wearing jeans backwards or having pancakes for supper, the person who implements such change is considered “cool” or “innovative” or “pioneering.” Japan, on the other hand, values doing things a certain way because “This is how we do it.” Following you will find three examples of things that don’t quite jive in my brain, but which I accept are part of the culture and won’t change just because they befuddle me.
1. Last Friday brought new reminders of the way things are done in Japan. In the morning a group of five visitors came to see the principal. A couple of us scurried off to the kitchenette to prepare six cups of tea. Serving tea to a guest is pretty customary in Japan, especially in business situations, but I’ve also been served complementary tea at a pastry shop and at the jewelry shop I stepped into to have the screws on my glasses tightened. Serving tea at the school isn’t my job, but it was an especially slow morning and the woman whose job it was had stepped out of the building to run some errands. So there we are: the counselor, the interim math teacher, and me. The counselor was frazzled because she couldn’t find six tea cups that matched.
“What about these?” I asked. There were six simple white cups that all matched.
“Those are coffee cups,” she replied.
“Could we use them for tea?” I asked.
“No, they’re coffee cups.”
Okay. Well, I didn’t want to bring it to this, but,
“In the U.S. we sometimes serve tea with cups that don’t match.”
“Maybe we should just serve them coffee?” The young math teacher has now chimed in. The search for six matching tea cups has proved fruitless. Coffee it is.
This was all taking place late morning, and the coffee had cooled down. To freshen it up, the counselor added boiling water to the pot. The math teacher set out saucers and packets of cream. I grabbed the sugar sticks. Some were blue and some were pink. I was hoping they wouldn’t care about that minor fact, but just in case, I put all of the blue sticks on one tray and all of the pink sticks on the other tray.
As there was a good chance I would make a mistake in serving the coffee, I let the counselor and the math teacher go in with the trays. But as I sat pondering what had just happened, I realized it cleared up an incident from seven years ago.
Back in 2007 my family visited my older sister, who was living in this same town in Japan. At the time, she was working at this school. When my family came for a visit, we were all served coffee. I though this was because we were Americans and they assumed we liked coffee better. In fact, none of us drink coffee on a daily basis, and three or four of us downright despise it. Still, I got a few slurps down in order to be polite, but I remember thinking how weak it was. I barely could taste the coffee. Teachers rotate schools at a rapid pace in this district, so I don’t believe any of the faculty present seven years ago still works there today. But the cups may not have changed. And perhaps that is the entire reason that we were served weak coffee one hot August morning seven years ago.
2. Friday at lunch time another difference arose, albeit comparatively minor. While usually a school lunch was provided, because of a crazy schedule, we all brought our own lunch that day. One student had grapes in his lunch. I watched as he systematically began squeezing the pulp into his mouth and neatly laying the skins to the side. This wasn’t a personality quirk. I had heard this is how Japanese eat grapes, but this was the first time I had actually seen it. “You know, in America,” I remarked casually, “we eat the skins. My mother is a dietitian and she always told me the skins are good for me.” The students all looked appropriately amazed. “Here, give me a grape, and I’ll show you.” The boy obliged and I popped it into my mouth. A couple other students wanted to try too. They didn’t make faces or anything. But I can almost guarantee you that they will keep squeezing the pulp out every time they eat grapes.
3. On Wednesday a student came into the teacher’s room (in Japanese schools the homerooms stay together, teachers revolve in and out, and when teachers aren’t teaching they return to a general teachers’ room). It almost looked like he was wearing makeup. Now, Japan does have makeup for men, but junior highers, male or female, aren’t allowed to wear makeup to school. I thought some more about what was different and realized his lips had a bluish tinge.
“Have you been swimming?” I asked him.
Japanese elementary and junior high schools, at least the ones around here, have pools and swimming is part of the P.E. curriculum. The temperature outside was about 23 C (73 Fahrenheit) and it was a cloudy day. I don’t know if the pool is heated or not. But the kid’s lips were blue.
Now, I completely understand that they probably need to finish up their curriculum and the sudden drop in temperature (we lost about 10 Celsius/20 Fahrenheit degrees in a week) was unexpected. The thing that doesn’t quite work in my brain is that in the hottest part of summer, Japanese people become quite anxious if they see someone going for a run in the rain. Or a walk in the rain without an umbrella. One time some friends and I were hiking, got caught in a downpour, and began biking back. A woman pulled over and insisted we take plastic garbage bags and put them on. We were already soaked. And it was warm out. I just don’t quite get it. And mind you, this rain fear is not new from the radiation. It was present long before 2011.
There are certain ways things are done. They may or may not make sense to me. But in fairness, most people in the world don’t understand why Americans will remain stopped at a red light when no one else is around. And that is a rule I faithfully followed, even when I recurrently finished a shift at 10:30 p.m. and had to wait on empty streets for the lights to change. We all have our own comprehension of the rules. I understand that, even if I don’t understand the individual customs.