Culture shock in Japan: going beyond the cliche
“The grey sprawl of Tokyo was an intimidating version of the future, not yours or mine, but our children’s.” This is how acclaimed travel writer Paul Theroux opens Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (2008).
In Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003), the film many foreign visitors associate most with Tokyo, it is shown as a cipher, a weird, quirky or inaccessible backdrop used to focus our attention on the American protagonists’ midlife crises. For western travellers, Tokyo represents a weird mix of contradictions, futuristic modernity and ancient tradition, order and chaos, minimalism and boundless consumerism.
Japan’s tourism industry is experiencing unprecented growth. The number of visitors surged from just over 6 million in 2011, to about 22 million in 2016. One of last year’s most popular buzzwords was “legacy” (regashii) relating to the impact of the 2020 Olympics on the city. Many western brands have tried to introduce themselves in the country of the rising sun without much success, mainly due to a lack of understanding of the local culture, a “funny” irony bearing in mind that Japanese youngsters try to imitate the main icons of the western culture, with a great influence from the US.
Most people in Japan have spent their holidays in Hawaii at least once in their live, being great fans of surfing. French-style restaurants and patisseries are considered the representation of cool and classy. At the same time though, human relations are completely different from the west, especially when it comes to relations between different genders. I remember one night speaking with a Danish girl who recently moved to Japan, after meeting some Japanese friends over her studies of professional contemporary dance in Europe. She was telling us about her experiences so far, how closed the social groups are there, how relations are much more distant and how she ended up joining a sexual experience which she was still trying to psychologically digest.
Over our stay in Tokyo we met up with a couple we knew from London. She’s Japanese and he’s British and they had just moved there to open a fusion cuisine restaurant. It was really interesting to hear his feeling of getting used to such a different culture where for example, saying “no” is considered really rude, where everybody has to be busy, where things have to follow the rules of “perfection”, but where at the same time people are extremely polite and honesty is just taken for granted – to apply for a job you don’t need to provide references, not even CV, as if they discover that you lied you’ll get completely out of the society due to the big dishonour that it represents for the person and the rest of the family.
To really understand a culture it’s crucial to go beyond the numbers and clichés, it’s necessary to establish a closer relation and empathise with the “whys” behind the values and social behaviours.
Tour guide and consultant Charles Spreckley offers a reverse Lost in Translation solution to really go beyond the flat and superficial experience. Tokyo, in his view, is misrepresented by the grandiose: big companies, neon signs and sensorial overload. In fact, the opposite is truer. His initiative, People Make Places, focuses on the city’s roots – small, neighbourhood businesses. For Spreckley, under the upper layer of economic stagnation thrives a dynamic culture of chefs, designers and entrepreneurs driven by a unique artisanal spirit.
“In the West, the common aspiration is to become rich and famous”, said Spreckley to Japanese magazine Tōyō Keizai, but the Japanese spirit of the artisan (shokunin katagi) champions a more modest sense of fulfillment derived from honing one’s skills and maximising customer satisfaction.