Saturday, August 11, 2012

Observations Regarding Japan

Here are some of my personal observations regarding Japan.  Many are comparisons to Korea.  As an American who lives in Korea, the comparisons are inevitable.  These are merely observations, and are not universal truths, so they must be taken for what they are.  A common theme I come across in comparing the two cultures is that the various tastes and preferences seem to be more diverse in Japan than in Korea.     

1.  Younger Japanese women are more likely to wear traditional clothing in public than younger Korean women.  When walking the streets of Osaka and Kyoto, it was not uncommon to see Japanese women in their twenties wearing Kimonos with their hair fixed up beautifully, and wearing makeup.  The combination of the kimonos, the white socks, and the slippers force them to walk a certain way, taking shorter and lighter steps, while keeping their legs together.  It is very feminine, and very attractive.  Many times, men would be with them in their traditional garb also.  It is quite evident that that particular generation upholds certain traditions, and are unashamed of their identities, which is something to be admired in a world where the east is becoming more western.  The only time I have ever seen a younger Korean woman wear a hanbok is in pictures for a wedding.  It is quite rare to see a young Korean adult wearing one in public on Chusok or Lunar New Year, holidays where one would think that traditional garb would be worn, much less in everyday life.    

2.  There is a definite difference between Koreans and the Japanese in eye shape and facial structures.  Many Japanese people seem to have larger eyes, although many have smaller ones.  More Japanese people seem to have double eye lids than Koreans.  Those with smaller eyes definitely have a shape that is distinctly different from those of Koreans with eyes of a similar size.  Japanese children look distinctly different from Korean children.  Because children are obviously less likely to have plastic surgery, wear makeup, and grow facial hair, the difference in facial structures between the two races seem to be more indicative and telling in them.  Japanese people also have facial expressions that are uniquely Japanese, as Koreans have those that are uniquely Korean.  It is difficult to explain, but contrary to popular belief in the west, all asians definitely do not look the same. 

3.  Japanese people seem quieter.  Before visiting Japan, my Korean friends explained to me that Japanese people are less expressive in public.  I don't know how true this is, but apparently it is bad manners to be overly expressive in public.    Although I did see bursts of laughter by one or two people at a time, I didn't see it from larger groups of people, as you see in most other places.  A lot of women covered their mouths in order to contain their laugher.   

The Japanese language seems to be more rhythmic, and slightly less harsh than Korean.  Japanese consonants seem to be softer sounding, and that may contribute to the quietness.  As a nonspeaker, the Japanese language is very pleasant sounding.  I am not saying Korean is not, as that is a matter of preference.  It is especially pleasant to hear a younger Japanese woman speak.        

4.  Japanese people, as a whole, seem to have a broad taste in music.  While Koreans seem to prefer pop music influenced by hip-hop and r&b, a lot of Japanese people seem to prefer rock music.  Some of the pop music in Japan seems to have more of a rock influence, while almost all of the pop music in Korea is influenced more by r&b.  In Japan, I saw on television a video by Jack White, and another by Oasis, artists that most Koreans have never even heard of, and if they are, they hardly get a mention.  I also saw Lady Gaga, and Justin Beiber, western artists who are also quite popular Korea, on television in here in Japan.  Some japanese music seems to have similar influences to that of most Korean popular music, but there is a broader influence here as well.  It was quite refreshing to hear guitar music in Japan.  There rock music, in particular, seems to be diverse.  K-pop also seems to be popular in Japan.  I've seen numerous Girls' Generation posters, and heard "Fantastic Baby," by Big Bang several times here.  One of my new Japanese friends talked about how his female friends regularly listened to K-pop.  Unlike Korea, people in Japan seem to think more independently in their music preferences, because a larger variety is available for them.

5.  Japanese men seem to be shorter than Korean men.  I felt taller in Japan than I did in Korea.

6.  Significantly less people wear glasses in Japan than in Korea.

7.  My coworker, Kelsey, pointed this one out.  In public, while trash cans are rare in Korea, places to sit, such as benches, are rare in Japan.  At least they are in Osaka and Kyoto.  Maybe more is available in other parts of Japan. 

8.  English is a lot less prevalent in Japan than in Korea.  In Korea, a significant amount of Koreans are able and willing to communicate in English.  In Japan that is not the case.  In Korea, regarding fashion, English is sort of "in."  Most Koreans wear t-shirts with English writing, much of it being misspelled and nonsensical, but nevertheless, funny.  Contrary to what one might think, it is rather hard to find a shirt with Korean writing here in Korea.  Before going home to America, I wanted to find t-shirts for my brothers with something written in Korean, but actually had a hard time finding what I was looking for.  That was not the case in Japan.  English doesn't seem to be "in" there.  

9.  The fashion tastes in Japan are a lot more diverse.  In Korea, generally, the celebrities seem to set the fashion trends, and the general population follows it.  In Japan, the preppy look is in, as is in Korea, but the punk look also seems to be popular.  There were a lot of Japanese men with spiked hair who were going for a rougher look than what one would currently see in most men in Korea.  In Japan, I also saw a lot of nerds,  a lot of men who were into sportswear, and also lot of men who dressed classily conservative.  In terms of women, there seemed to be two general types.  I saw a lot of women who were conservatively elegant.  There were also a lot of women who were more trendy.  In Kyoto, the conservative elegant classy look seemed to be more popular, while in Osaka, fashion tastes were more trendy.  In Osaka, it seemed like most of the ladies had their hair color altered.  There seemed to be a lot more diversity in hair styles and altered hair colors among women in Japan, than among Korean women.  

10.  As a whole, Japanese women were beautiful.  Like Koreans, they cover their mouths when they laugh and/or blush.  Most Japanese women wear blush, while most Korean women don't.  It was summer, so an abundance of Japanese women, like Korean women, were wearing miniskirts and high heels.  I didn't think this was possible, but I noticed that a larger percentage of women in Kyoto and Osaka wear high heels those in Korea.  A lot of Korean women wear tennis shoes with their skirts.  I find it to be a cute fashion trend.  Japanese women, like Korean women, walk under femininely flowery umbrellas in sunny weather in order to protect their preferred fair skin tone.  I thought the women in Kyoto were generally more attractive than those in Osaka, and I still prefer Korean women to Japanese women.

12.  The funnest thing about Japan was eating the food.  The food was so different from anything I had ever tasted.  The only sampling of Japanese cuisine that one would get in America is Americanized sushi, so trying new food was a lot of fun.  To see exactly what I ate, check my Facebook page, or my twitter account.  I have numerous pictures posted.  The goal in Japanese cuisine seems to be to accentuate flavor of the key ingredient.  Japanese food doesn't seem to be heavily seasoned, nor is it spicy.  The goal of Korean cuisine seems to be the exact opposite.  They seem to go for a particular taste in whatever dish they serve, so Korean food is usually heavily seasoned, a lot of it being spicy.  A lot of my food during my time in Japan came from the delis of grocery stores, and convenience stores.  The convenience stores had extensive selections of cooked meals, including noodle dishes, rice dishes, salads, various rolls, and etc.  The delis in the grocery stores had the same things, but they seemed to be of a higher quality.  The grocery stores offered a decent selection of various sushi.  It was both delicious and fresh.  I enjoyed eating in Japan. 

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Being an Outsider

I am currently in the middle of a one-week vacation in Japan.   I flew into Kansai International Airport in Osaka on Wednesday, and immediately  took a train to Kyoto.  It is Sunday afternoon, and I am currently in Osaka.  I have been here since Friday, and will be here until Monday morning.  I will then take a train back to Kyoto, and will remain there until the remainder of my trip when I fly out Wednesday.  Thus far, everything has been incredible, and being that I prefer large cities, I thought I would enjoy Osaka more, but the contrary has been the case.   That does not take anything away from Osaka.  It is also an amazing city.  

For the last few years, it has been a dream of mine to visit Japan, and being here has sort of been surreal.  Interacting with the people, eating the food, and experiencing the culture have all been learning experiences.  Back home, and even in Korea, interacting with Japanese people has been a rarity.  Although I have known numerous Koreans throughout my life, I have been around very few Japanese people, so Japan has been a huge source of curiosity.

Upon arriving, I immediately felt like an outsider, and I've never felt that way in Korea.  I arrived in Korea with a strong knowledge of Korean culture.  Although I am not fluent, I've known enough of the language to be polite, and to get what I've needed.   Koreans have many times seemed willing to at least make an effort to speak English during the times that my knowledge of the Korean language has been insufficient.  That is not the case here in Japan.  Japan is sort of like America in that here, they expect foreigners to speak their language, and they rarely speak English here during interactions with them.  Fewer signs and documents are in English, and only on one or two occasions have Japanese people actually spoken English to me.  The only thing that I've been able to say in Japanese is "arigato cojaimas," which means Thank you.  I also know nothing about Japanese manners and customs.  When interacting with older people in Korea, it always seems to be polite to nod, or even bow.  Although they bow and nod in Japan, they don't seem to do so as much, so I have zero knowledge on when and when not to do so.  Having no knowledge of the language and basic etiquette can cause one to immediately feel like an outsider.

In Korea, although I don't look Korean, I have always been fairly familiar with the etiquette and customs, so when Koreans look at me as if I don't belong, I am secure and confident in my identity as a person of Korean descent to know that I do.  I have become quite used to that mentality.  Being here in Japan, I now know how my foreign friends in Korea feel in being exposed to an unfamiliar culture with unfamiliar norms, unfamiliar manners, and unfamiliar customs.  In Korea, I've found myself being rather judgmental of the foreign community for their lack of understanding of Korean culture.  I've now learned to be more sympathetic.

Being in an unfamiliar place, I've learned to remain quiet, smile, observe, then imitate.  

Japanese Ramen has been my favorite dishes here in Japan thus far.  It is nothing like the Ramen in Korea or America.  It is of a much higher quality.  The broth is so much richer and better tasting being that it is homemade, and doesn't come from a packet.  The texture of the noodles seems to be slightly more chewy.  The meat that is added always seems to be of a high quality.  To call it ramen sort of does it an injustice because when people from America or Korea think of Ramen, they immediately think of the store-bought packages.  

Upon arriving in Osaka in Kansai airport, one of the first things that I did was enter the food court for lunch.  Knowing nothing about Japanese cuisine, I chose the first restaurant that I saw, which was one that served Ramen.  The woman greeted me in Japanese, and I was absolutely clueless as to what she was telling me.  I sort of nonverbally informed her that I don't know Japanese, and I immediately smiled in such a way to make light of the situation.  Luckily, the menu had pictures of every dish.  I chose the one that seemed to have the highest amount of meat per price, so continuing to smile, I gently pointed to the picture of the dish that I wanted to order.  She smiled back, and spoke softly, as Japanese people seem to always do, telling me what seemed to be the price, the instructions of where to eat the food, and what to do with my dishes once finished.  

Some of my Korean friends told me that Japanese table manners are slightly different, so I was rather self conscious. I immediately began to observe how other people around me were eating.  I noticed that they were loudly slurping when eating their noodles.  I began do so also, and was quite pleased to remain oblivious to all the others eating.  The broth in the soup was amazing, and one of the best broths that I have ever eaten.  I wanted to consume every bit of it, and the spoon was a rather uncomfortable tool.  Once again, I looked up to observe.  I noticed people were drinking straight from the bowls.  I immediately began to do so, and was once again happy to remain oblivious.  

Although initially being exposed to an unfamiliar culture, I have found that in any culture, it is always polite to remain quiet, and warmly smile frequently in interactions.  And when in doubt, observe others around you to see what they do, and imitate.  And even when I have been incorrect, I have found that people are less likely to be agitated when I am quiet and pleasant.