Living & Leaving Japan: Culture & Reverse Culture Shocks

Rodrigo de Reyes Lanfranco lived in Japan for two years, before returning home to Colombia. Like many foreigners who had lived in Japan, there’s always a culture shock when coming into a culture that’s so vastly different from your own.

A Masters student in Japan, he studied International Cooperation in The University of Tokyo, but went to the campus in Kashiwa which was in Chiba.

“The Japanese government gives many scholarships to students around the world. Normally, it’s more open for postgraduate studies, but there are also a couple of students who come in for their Bachelors. Less than 30% of the students who graduate from Japan end up working there. But, Japan doesn’t actually ask you to return to your own country. You can stay or go back, so it’s a generous tool for education and giving people more access to Japanese culture. I think the government is very keen in giving people the chance to know Japan and speak well of Japan. It’s great for students, and for the government too!”

What made him want to move to Japan?

“He wanted me to transcend and be enlightened!”

“I think most people come to Japan because they have a connection with Japan, whether it’s family, love, obsession with manga or with tea ceremonies. In my case, I had a cultural interest in Japan since I was a little boy. My father is Peruvian, and his father, my grandfather, once had a Chinese girlfriend. She taught him how to cook Chinese food, and he taught my father how to cook Chinese food, so growing up sometimes we would have Chinese food. There was this interest in Asia, so to speak. Then, my father went into Zen Buddhism. He decided to study it and he always spoke to me about it. He wanted me to transcend and be enlightened!” Rodrigo laughs.

“During my Bachelors in Colombia, I started going to Japanese culture events, and every time I went, I learned something new. It was normally traditional Japanese culture like the tea ceremony or flower arrangements. I read the book ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’, which is based on the life of Mineko Iwasaki, a famous geisha, and then I read her autobiography. 8 years ago, I had wanted to study in Japan and I looked it up, but at the time all the information was in Japanese. But a few years later, suddenly everything was in English. So I applied, and I went to Japan!”

What were his first few impressions of Japan?

“If you’re not open, you can’t survive.”

“There are many foreigners with a very positive impression, and many foreigners with a very negative impression. I think that impression depends on how excited you are about Japan. In my case, I was extremely excited. I made myself absolutely open. I had to be very open because I was going to a place that was very far from home, with a 14-hour time difference. If you’re not open, you can’t survive. I found one thing very interesting – how Japan takes certain aspects of other cultures, and Japanises them. For example, when you eat in Delifrance, it’s not French, it’s very Japanese. I realized all the combinations on the menu didn’t really respect the fundamentals of French cuisine, so to speak. When I started to live in Japan, I noticed all this influence of Western culture, like Japan is trying to take from the West, but at the same time they don’t assimilate the culture. Yes, they have Delifrance, and the way they dress, it’s Western, but it’s all part of their own culture now.”

“In education, Japanese universities want to become more global, which is why there’s this great interest in bringing more people to study in Japan. One of the things that Japan gets low marks in when they have university rankings is that they have few students from abroad. When you go to a Japanese university where they’re supposed to be promoting a more international atmosphere, you soon discover that the university is ‘open’ only on the surface, but then many of the courses are still in Japanese. In my case, there was one semester where they had many courses in English so I could take many. But in the next semester, there were almost no English courses! It was very stressful!”

“In Japanese culture, it’s very important not to complain and not to disagree explicitly. You disagree in a way in which you agree first, and then you add something that is intended to disagree but it is not upfront. In my perspective, though, I need to hear “no” to know that the other person is disagreeing. In Japanese culture, disagreeing is so subtle that it’s difficult to understand whether they are disagreeing or not! When you turn to education, you can see in the sensei-pupil relationship, with a teacher talking a lot but never stating “why”, and students staying mute and never challenging. The teachers also speak in a way that leaves no room for controversy, and I find this quite amazing. Back home, teachers want to promote discussion so they make controversial statements that students discuss. But in Japan there’s just no room for that and eventually I found myself never disagreeing and staying silent even when I heard things I didn’t agree with. Here in Japan, the professor states something that feels like a “truth” and it stays like that.”

“Back home teachers want to promote discussion so they make controversial statements that students discuss.”

“I sometimes felt that when the teacher asked if there were questions at the end of the class, it was not necessarily a point to start a discussion, but a point in a class where you would finish. Also, the way it’s said, it feels like if you ask a question, you’re going to cause a program delay for the whole class, so then you’re like, okay, no,” Rodrigo continues.

This reminds me very much of a conversation I had with Mayu, who had experienced the same thing when she returned to Japan after having lived in America.

Now that Rodrigo is back in Bogota, Colombia, how does he feel being back home?

“People don’t care about their own volume.”

“Something that I have never noticed before was the noise of this city. Tokyo, even though it’s a city of 30 million people, is still kind of quiet. It’s crazy! Coming back here, I’ve suddenly noticed noise that has been here all along, but I’d never noticed it before because I lived here so long. There are all these buses, they’re very loud because they’re braking and accelerating all the time. People want to go very fast, and conversations are very loud. People don’t care about their own volume. In Japan, it’s important to be very quiet because of the neighbours, and the walls are so thin, but here it’s absolutely normal to have several parties going on at the same time on a Friday, in the same building, and being loud. And the understanding is, oh, well if they can do it this weekend, then I can do it next weekend. Of course when it’s too loud, then you complain but there’s a tolerance for loudness.”

“Silence is beautiful, and it allows you to do your own thing and not have to worry about being disturbed.”

“When I lived in Japan in a normal Japanese apartment, we got the police called on us 3 times in the first 2 weeks. And, I never thought we were loud! Once, we had people over and we were laughing a lot. It was Friday, around 9pm, and the neighbors called the police on us! I think the neighbors did that to ‘educate’ us, to show that this is how it works here so we better be quiet in the future. So after that, we didn’t have many parties but when we had people over we just knew we couldn’t be loud, and we had no problems. So now, coming back here, with all this noise, I wonder how people can live like this. And I started missing the quietness. In the end, it’s precious. Silence is beautiful, and it allows you to do your own thing and not have to worry about being disturbed.

Another friend of mine also had the police called on him. They had a few friends and were hanging out by the balcony, not being loud or unruly, and it had been around 8pm. The definition of ‘noisy’ is indeed quite different in Japan!”

“When you learn Japanese, a good word you learn in the beginning is benri, which means convenient.”

Japan is famous for it’s wonderful service, and Rodrigo believes the Japanese are so good with service due to their notion of respect for others.

“Another reverse shock I had has to do with the culture of service. In Japan, I think this culture is embedded in their notion of respect to others. And this respect has to do with making things easier for you. They probably feel they respect you by not wasting your time and making things as easy as possible for you. Here, it’s totally the opposite. It’s kind of like a culture where if you want something, then you must know it’s not easy. You’ll have to put in an effort. I’m talking about anything from the government to taking the bus. When you learn Japanese, a good word you learn in the beginning is benri, which means convenient. This says a lot about Japan.

In Japan, I really like the mascots you see. They’re made as a marketing tool, but they’re a way that makes anything friendlier and easier. They give you a pamphlet with whatever information you need, and you read it, and you think, oh my God, I feel like a baby, because it’s all too detailed, but it’s nice! It’s nice that you’re giving me information in this way so I will understand it, and it becomes easier because everything is made friendly.”

One of the main things that Rodrigo appreciated about Tokyo is this notion of invisibility.

“In Tokyo, I always felt invisible. I felt invisible because no one was looking at me. This allows you a bit of freedom, you have all these guys and girls dressing up in really interesting fashion, and I think it happens because their culture is very free in that sense. Since nobody is looking at you, then you can wear whatever you want, as long as it’s legal. You can express your personality through clothing. It’s interesting, because in my culture, people here would never dress up like that because they would draw so much attention. But in Tokyo you can do it because nobody is looking at you. Of course, they do have an opinion of you, but you will never feel like they are looking at you. In the beginning, I found this difficult because I’m used to this culture where everyone looks at you, and in Latin America, people are very worried about how they look, how they present themselves and what society says about you. At first, I felt like my self esteem was going down because, oh my gosh, I must be really ugly because nobody looks at me. In Tokyo, nobody looks at you on the streets unless you’re doing something absolutely crazy, no matter how cute you are.”

Coming back to Colombia was a bit of a shock, because Rodrigo had lost his invisibility powers.

“Suddenly everyone looks at you, wants to hear what you’re saying, and meddles in your business. I’ve started becoming more conscious about everything now. Am I dressing okay? Am I speaking too loud? But this invisibility, I don’t want it to disappear from my life. I appreciate it a lot. I’m trying to continue being a bit invisible as much as possible.”

Rodrigo relates a few experiences he found funny when he was in Japan.

“Oh, but have you been with a Japanese?”

“In two different occasions, I met some Japanese businessmen, who had some experience living in South America. They both started asking me about girls after two seconds of talking in Spanish, which I found very strange as other Japanese I met using English never talked about those things so early. I replied, “Well, I don’t have a girlfriend.” Then they said, “Oh, but have you been with a Japanese?” And I’m like, okay… This is a three-minute conversation and it’s already about girls. The Japanese are usually very polite, especially about personal things; but just because I was Latin American they felt it was normal to go to this topic. However, to me those were very improper questions. I don’t think in Latin America we would get to this topic that fast, especially with people we just met! I guess these guys were asked these things when they went to Latin America so they thought it was normal. . I’m sure that when they went there, some locals thought, “Oh my God, we have to get this Japanese guy to do something naughty!” So I guess it became normal for these guys to talk about these things but for me it was extremely uncomfortable.”

Living in Japan has definitely changed Rodrigo.

“I feel the experiences I had in Japan made me more calm. I’ve started feeling like I don’t need to be on this super high rhythm all the time, which I’m feeling here. I’ve changed, I’m not the same person anymore. I got to see this alternative way of being, and I now have a different perspective about life, to be more tolerant and respectful to others. I mustn’t make others uncomfortable. This new perspective has helped me appreciate the little things about Colombian society that I find very nice, like people helping each other out. Also, in Japan, people are very smiley in service, but sometimes it feels like a script, like they’re doing it because they’re expected to. Here, smiling is optional. So when people smile at you, it’s because they really want to. That’s something I appreciate so much more now.”

Photos by Ricardo San Carlos.

Rodrigo has recently started his very own blog, do check it out here! Follow Rodrigo on Twitter too.

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Ann Jie

Loves good conversations and hates small talk. Finds people fascinating and wonders why meanies exist. Loves writing violent, graphic short stories but finds horror movies too scary to watch. Follow me on Instagram @annjieslices or tweet me a slice of YOUR life at @annjieslices!

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