How to tell if you're Japanese
by Hirofumi Nagamura
One in a growing series of counterparts to my How to Tell If You're American page.
Hirofumi is a freelance
translator who lives in Kobe, Japan. He also teaches English at a
juku or study academy... a favorite after-school activity
in Japan is more school. He picked up his English in the U.S.,
where he lived for several years of his childhood.
He's also interested in programming, linguistics, and classical music.
Pronunciation guide: The consonants should be pronounced as they would be in English. The vowels are (roughly) a as in "car", e as in "bell", i as in "sit", o as in "or", and u as in "put". A circumflex accent (^) over a vowel indicates that it is pronounced twice as long as normal vowels.
Syllables are always of the form [consonant +] vowel [+ "n"]. No consonant clusters, no diphthongs or triphthongs. Very simple.
If you're Japanese...
Mmm, sea cucumbers...
- You're familiar with Tamori, Kuroyanagi Tetsuko, Sazaesan, Doraemon, Pokemon, the latest NHK morning drama series, Ueki Hitoshi, Gekkô Kamen, Chûshingura, Shimura Ken, Tetsuwan Atom, Sakamoto Kyû, Misora Hibari, and, of course, Tora-san.
- You know how baseball and sumô wrestling are played. If you're male, you can argue intricate points about their rules. At school, you also learned how to play volleyball, soccer, basketball, tennis, rugby (maybe), and either kendô or judô. If you actually know the rules of American football (amefuto), you belong to a very small minority. If you know anything about Formula One racing, you know that Honda and (more recently) Toyota rule.
- You probably get about a week's vacation for the New Year and a few days around Bon (a Buddhist festival in mid-August, when your ancestors return to this world). In addition, there are quite a few National Holidays-- you probably get about a week off in the so-called Golden Week, where four holidays are crammed together (Apr. 29th, May 3rd, 4th, and 5th).
- Being hit by a typhoon or two in late summer to early fall is nothing to be surprised about.
Everything works except politics
- You're not likely to be religious; Japan is a very secular nation. Nominally, you probably belong to one of the mainstream Buddhist sects, but you don't actively practice it. It isn't at all unusual to have your coming-of-age ceremonies (shichigosan, at ages 3, 5, and 7) in a native Shintô shrine, get married in a Christian church, and have your funeral in a Buddhist temple. Only about 1% of the population is Christian.
- You think of McDonald's and KFC etc. as cheap food.
- You probably own a telephone and a TV. Your place is heated in the winter (unless you live in Okinawa), air-conditioned in the summer, and has its own bathroom. You do your laundry in a machine. You don't kill your own food. You don't have a dirt floor. You either eat at a table sitting on chairs, or at a low table sitting on zabuton mattresses laid on the tatami floor mats.
- You eat boiled rice with most meals, use soy sauce as a condiment for much of your food, and eat most things with chopsticks. Grasping peas and beans with chopsticks is easy; tôfu (bean-curd cake, which tends to disintegrate at the slightest provocation) can be a bit tricky, but everyone manages. People who are clumsy with their chopsticks are beneath contempt.
- You don't consider insects, dogs, cats, monkeys, or guinea pigs to be food, although grasshoppers and wasp grubs are considered delicacies in some areas. You do consider seaweed, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, and raw fish to be food. And, of course, kujira (whale). Yum!
- A bathroom (basurûmu) always has a bathtub in it, but not necessarily a toilet. The toilet is more likely to be in a separate room called benjo, tearai, or toire.
Why Jiro can't read his own T-shirt
- It seems natural to you that the railroads, auto manufacturers, and airlines are privately run; some of the railways and airlines used to be government-owned, but they are providing better service after privatization. The utilities are private but strictly regulated regional monopolies, which again seems natural.
- You expect, as a matter of course, that the phones will work. Getting a new phone is routine.
- The train system is excellent. The bullet trains (Shinkansen) are the pride of Japan. Commuter trains and subways run with clockwork precision and are the best way to get around in the cities. The roads are too narrow and congested, and gasoline is expensive (around $4 a gallon), so cars aren't all that useful. You usually don't take a plane except when you're going to a different island in the archipelago, or when you're going overseas.
- You find a multi-party parliamentary system natural. Unfortunately this system hasn't been functioning very well-- if you think Italian politics is bad, think again. You're totally confused with how all the various parties have been splitting and merging in the past few years, resulting in a heap of undistinguishable parties with names like (from Right to Left) the Liberals, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, the Democrats, the Social Democrats, etc. Needless to say, you have a deep mistrust of politicians.
- Socialism is a word that brings back memories of the 1950s and 60s. You're more realistic now, but in those days socialism didn't seem quite so bad. As for the Communist Party-- the oldest existing political party, and not quite small enough to be irrelevant-- either you fear and loathe them, or you have mixed feelings: you value them as a counterweight to the conservatives, and might even vote for them, but you surely wouldn't want them to actually take power.
- You usually don't think in terms of race. That's because everyone on this planet is either a Japanese or a gaijin (foreigner). Period.
- You have a firm (if mostly subconscious) belief that Japan and the Japanese are somehow "unique" and different from the rest of the world. If pressed to give reasons, though, you would be unable to provide any.
- You likewise believe that Japanese must be the most difficult language in the world. Even though there are nowadays many gaijin (or gaikokujin, to use a more politically correct term) on TV who speak fluent Japanese, you would still be mildly surprised, or even feel uncomfortable, to actually meet one in person.
- You take a strong court system for granted, although you won't use it. You know that if you went into business and had problems with a customer, partner, or supplier, you could take them to court-- but you wouldn't, because the system is way too slow, and being involved in a suit isn't exactly good for your reputation.
- You think a tax level of 30% isn't all that bad, and chances are you don't think so much about it anyway because corporate workers don't have to file their tax returns-- their income taxes are deducted from salary. The only people who gripe about taxes are business owners and the self-employed.
- You count on excellent medical treatment. You know you're not going to die of cholera or other Third World diseases. You expect very strong measures to be taken to save very ill babies or people in their eighties. You think dying at 65 would be a tragedy.
- You think a lot of problems could be solved if only people would put aside their prejudices and work together.
- You'd respect someone who speaks English, Russian, or Chinese-- but you very likely don't yourself speak them well enough to communicate with a monolingual foreigner.
- Learning foreign languages is a Good Thing-- notwithstanding the fact that, despite six years of English in junior and senior high schools, you can hardly understand (much less speak) a single word of it. You'll never need to use a foreign language anyway, except when you're sightseeing overseas.
- If you're female and single, learning ikebana (flower arrangement) and sadô (tea ceremony) are Good Things too-- if nothing else, they give you an air of culture and sophistication, which is a definite plus when you're going through a third party to find a husband.
- Compulsory education (six years in elementary school and three years in junior high) is free, unless you go to a private school. About 95% go on to senior high schools (three years), which charge only a nominal tuition. About half of high school graduates go on to colleges, and these can be expensive if you go to the private ones.
- College is four years long, unless you study medicine (six years). Competition for admission to the better universities is pretty fierce.
Contributions to world civilization
- Mustard comes as a paste in plastic tubes or in powdered form in cans, as does wasabi (the pungent greenish paste used in sushi). Shaving cream comes in cans. Milk comes in cartons (usually) or in bottles (now rare).
- No, no, it's year, month, date: 1945/8/15. (And you know what happened on that date.) If you're over 60, you might not be very familiar with the Western calendar years; you're more used to nengô. In which case, it's Shôwa 20/8/15.
(I guess this needs explaining-- nengô means "era name". Years are referred to as "the Nth year of the X era". In olden days, emperors would start new eras whenever an auspicious or inauspicious event occurred. Japanese history books often have big tables at the back showing which year of which era corresponds to which year of the Christian calendar. Ever since modernization, a "one Emperor, one era" rule has been in effect. Currently it's the Hêsê era.)
- You don't know the Emperor's name. Custom dictates that you refer to the reigning emperor simply as tennô hêka (His Majesty the Emperor), and his name (yes, his; only men can inherit the throne) is never mentioned in the media. Deceased emperors are referred to by their okurina, special names given after death.
- The decimal point is a dot. Certainly not a comma (but, confusingly, it sometimes is called a konma-- probably a loan word from French or German).
- Japan follows the Chinese scheme for numbers, where new names for numbers are introduced every four digits, e.g. 10,000 = 1 man, 100,000,000 = 1 oku, 1,000,000,000,000 = 1 chô, etc. The Western practice of inserting commas (or periods, or whatever) every three digits is pretty confusing.
- You expect marriages to be made for love, but arrangement by third parties can be convenient if you can't find a partner on your own. People usually get married in Shintô ceremonies or in a Christian church (even if they're not Christians), immediately followed by a big banquet where you invite all your relatives, friends, co-workers, etc., etc. Civil ceremonies are unheard of. Naturally, a man gets only one wife at a time.
- If a man has sex with another man, he's a homosexual. Homosexuality is not a crime, but you will very likely be ostracized for it.
- You almost always call people by their family name, except for your superiors at work and other Important People, whom you have to call by their title-- calling your boss Tanaka-san is a big no-no. The only people you can call by their first names are little children, your siblings, cousins, friends from early childhood, and people you met in bars.
- If you're a woman, you don't go to the beach topless.
- A hotel room has a private bath. On the other hand, traditional Japanese-style inns have cavernous common baths.
- Foreign films are always subtitled, except for films for children. On television, though, they're always dubbed, except for those artsy European films shown in the small hours. Japanese films aren't all that bad, but their low budgets show through, and you can see the same stars in TV dramas anyway, so why bother?
- You've been to Tokyo Disneyland at least once, and perhaps to the new Universal Studios Japan as well. You think they are wonderful. (Cultural imperialism? What is that?)
- You expect to be able to transact business, or deal with the government, without paying bribes. Of course, some entertaining and gift-giving may be necessary, but you certainly wouldn't consider this a bribe.
- If a politican has been cheating on his wife, you might question his ability to govern.
- Bigger stores will take your credit card. Small ones usually won't.
- It used to be that a company would almost never fire an employee. With the recent wave of risutora (corporate restructuring), though, things are changing...
- You usually don't eat bacon. It's too greasy.
They've never seen Paris-Match?
- You went over Japanese, Chinese, European, and U.S. history at school, with a little bit of Southeast Asia and the Middle East thrown in.
- World War II was a catastrophe. You know the Imperial Army commited a number of atrocities during the war (unless you're an ultra-nationalist loony who thinks the Nanking Massacre is a Chinese fabrication), but you also think that ordinary Japanese were themselves victims of the war, manipulated by the militarist regime. As for the Americans, they did a service to Japan by destroying its war machine, but their fire-bombing of the helpless civilian populations was hardly commendable. And they had no business dropping A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and massacring the citizens, when it was already clear that Japan was defeated. You might have a relative who died in the war, either as a soldier or as a victim of the air raids.
- Up until 1945, your country was never conquered by a foreign nation. The Mongols tried twice in the 13th century, but they were stupid enough to come during typhoon season and perished in fierce storms-- whence comes the word kamikaze (divine wind).
- On paper, Japan doesn't have a military. The current constitution (drafted by the Americans during the post-war reconstruction) doesn't allow Japan to have one. In reality, the Self Defense Forces (created at the behest of the Americans just before the Korean War) is one of the most powerful military forces in Asia. This is a huge legal headache. Changing the constitution to accommodate the status quo would meet fierce opposition from the left. You wish the military would somehow disappear, not fight wars. Its getting involved in politics is completely out of the question.
- You have mixed feelings about Korea. Culturally they're very similar, and you'd never be able to tell a Korean apart on the basis of facial features alone. Lots of Koreans live in Japan, and you might even have a Korean friend or two. You feel sorry about the discrimination they often experience. But frankly, you wish they'd stop griping about Japanese oppression during the colonial era.
- You also have mixed feelings about China. In ages past they brought civilization to Japan and heavily influenced the culture, which calls for respect. But today, they're, um, Communists! There have also been a lot of illegal Chinese immigrants recently, and some of them are criminals with links to the Chinese underworld. And frankly, you wish they'd stop griping about Japanese atrocities during the war.
- One more neighbor: Russia. You have no mixed feelings towards them, only suspicion and fear. Ever since the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) the two countries haven't gotten along very well. They've never returned the Southern Kurile (Chishima) Islands that they occupied in 1945, which causes ongoing resentment.
- You perceive Americans to be friendly, warm-hearted people who live (a) in New York, (b) in Los Angeles, or (c) in the middle of nowhere on a farm in the Midwest. You have no idea why these pleasant people insist on owning guns and frequently use them on each other, or why they're so belligerent and militaristic in the arena of foreign relations. You're also frustrated at how they see Japan as either (a) the land of "Fujiyama" (which in reality is called Fujisan) and gêsha girls (an endangered species), or (b) a high-tech wonderland of Sony, Toyota, and Nikon. Somehow you feel that neither description fits your country particularly well...
- The people who appear on the most popular talk shows are mostly entertainers, politicians, or rather strange individuals. Authors too, but not the ones that write serious literature. Politicians also have special talk & debate shows on Sunday mornings.
- The Japanese media are just as gossipy as their British and American counterparts. Intellectuals often deplore this and point to the French media as a virtuous example, but the general public don't seem to care-- the more gossip articles there are in a magazine or tabloid, the better they sell.
- Comics (manga) are everywhere. There are dozens of weekly manga magazines and everyone under thirty reads them. Some go to the extreme and become manga otaku, people so completely immersed in manga that it dominates their lives. You detest them and do your best to avoid them.
- You're used to a wide variety of choices for almost anything you buy.
- You measure things using the metric system, like all sane countries do.
- You are not a farmer.
- You drive on the left side of the road. You stop at red lights even if nobody's around. If you're a pedestrian and cars are stopped at a red light, you will fearlessly cross the street in front of them.
- You consider the Volkswagen Beetle to be a medium-sized car.
- The police are armed, but not with submachine guns.
- If a woman is plumper than the average, it doesn't improve her looks. Being tall doesn't help either, since men don't like women to be taller than themselves. A woman with a curvaceous body will attract men's eyes, of course, but it isn't essential-- after all, it can be rather difficult to fit that kind of body inside a kimono. Straight black hair is an easier way to score points with men. And there's a saying that "fair skin will suffice to hide seven shortcomings", so quit sunbathing, already!
- As for men, the three cardinal sins are (1) being short, (2) being fat, and (3) being bald. Wearing glasses is no big deal, since so many people are nearsighted anyway. Women don't like men with hair on their chests. And having muscles like a bodybuilder is a turn-off more often than not. (The usual reaction is "Yuck!")
- The biggest meal of the day is in the evening.
- People don't usually make jokes about specific nationalities. It used to be Koreans and Chinese, but now most people have grown too sensitive for that.
- There's parts of the city you won't go to unless you're in the company of a knowledgable local.
Space and time
- You feel that your kind of people aren't being listened to enough in Tokyo.
- You wouldn't expect both inflation and unemployment to be very high (say, over 5%) at the same time.
- You say you don't care very much what family someone comes from, but you will when your daughter brings her boyfriend over.
- The normal thing, when a couple dies, is for their estate to be divided equally between their children.
- Opera and ballet are rather outlandish entertainments-- you'd be flabbergasted if your friend turned out to be a fan. Traditional plays like nô, kyôgen, and kabuki are of course the quintessence of Japanese culture, but the dialog (in medieval Japanese) is difficult to follow and, aside from one or two performances you were forced to sit through in school, you've never gone to see any.
- Christmas is in the winter. If you have kids, you give them presents and put up a tree. If you're single, Christmas Eve is the most romantic night of the year which you'll doubtless spend with your boy/girlfriend. All this despite the fact that you're not a Christian. Who cares? It's a good excuse for having fun!
- You are used to not having a state church (unless you're of the prewar generation) and don't think that it would be a good idea.
- You'd be hard pressed to name the capitals or the leaders of all the nations of Asia, let alone Europe.
- You've left a message at the beep.
- Taxi drivers are generally courteous and wear white gloves and a tie, but some of them look and speak like they used to be yakuza gangsters. They usually do know their way around the city, though.
- You think welfare and unemployment payments are necessary, even though you sometimes hear of people cheating. On the other hand, you would be deeply ashamed to take handouts yourself. National Health Insurance and National Pension are a prerequisite for any civilized nation.
- If you want to be a doctor, you need to get a bachelor's first.
- You know lawyers exist, but you've never seen one in person.
- If you have an appointment, you'll mutter an excuse if you're five minutes late, and apologize profusely if it's ten minutes. An hour late is almost inexcusable.
- If you're talking to someone, you get uncomfortable if they approach closer than about two feet.
- You think it's rude to touch people you're not intimate with. (If you're older, you might even be uncomfortable with handshakes.) When you're a nameless face in a crowd or jam-packed on a commuter train, however, you have no qualms about pushing and bumping into people.
- About the only things you expect to bargain for are houses, cars, and antiques. Haggling is largely a matter of finding the hidden point that's the buyer's minimum.
- Once you're past college, you very rarely simply show up at someone's place. People have to invite each other over-- especially if a meal is involved.
- You bow to greet people. Once you're past school age, you're expected to know the various methods and degrees of bowing-- from cursory nods to full ninety degrees to groveling on the floor-- and use them properly according to the situation.
- When you negotiate, you are polite, of course, and you have to be careful about whether to 'play hardball' or not-- some folks think it's rude. These people seem to think that negotiating is all about getting the other party to understand their intentions without stating them explicitly themselves.
- If you have a business appointment or interview with someone, you expect to have that person to yourself, and the business shouldn't take more than an hour or so.