06 April 2011

An Interview With an Expat: Japan

Japanese Cherry Blossoms, or "sakura"*
 I met my dear friend Becky in the fall of 2006 and in no time we were best friends. One year later she accepted a teaching position in Nagoya, Japan. We were all quite sad to see her go, but knew that the opportunity would allow her to grow as a person and serve the world in a way she hadn’t been able to before. She left in August 2007 to teach at an international Christian school for one year. One year turned into three and in the fall of 2010 she journeyed back home to Florida to pursue a teaching career here.

This past week I talked her into sitting down to talk with me about her time living in Japan. I am so excited to share her insights into Japanese culture and her experiences living as a single woman overseas. I can’t express how endlessly proud I am of her, and this post will not do justice to the amazing woman she’s become throughout these last few years.

Becky at Nagoya Castle
 Why Japan?

Why not Japan? Well, the organization I was a part of (NICS) had 20 schools in 16 countries. I guess I could have gone anywhere. But honestly, Japan was the first school that got back to me and without knowing much about Japanese culture, I went. I went more because of the relationship I had built with the people at the school rather than for a love for the country. But I fell in love quickly with the country and the culture…and the cakes. Their cakes are so good.

What was your biggest cultural shock?

The complex system of throwing trash away. There’s a receptacle for everything- food, plastic, paper, cardboard and so on. They are very environmentally conscious, which is great. It was also a culture shock coming back and seeing how we, as Americans, throw so much away. It was so wasteful!

Also the public transportation system was a pleasant surprise. It ran with absolute efficiency and was quick and easy (well, once you learned the routes.)
The most difficult shock was probably the language. I struggled even making the right sounds. The streets were covered in characters I couldn’t piece together to comprehend. I felt like I was in kindergarten all over again.

Tokyo Subway Map

What is your favorite thing about Japanese culture?

Hospitality and customer service. It didn’t matter where I was, a convenience store or a fancy restaurant, the level of customer service was always the same. If you were at the grocery store, two people in line behind each other was enough for the store to open another register. They were always ready and willing to help you, and always happy to have you in their shop.

I also loved the juxtaposition of old culture and new technology. In Tokyo you have Meiji-Jingu - a beautiful old Shinto shrine overflowing with cultural relevance. Across the street from the shrine is Harajuku- the epicenter of Tokyo fashion. I makes me look back at how young America is and how much we need to hold on to our background and cherish our cultural background too. It inspired me to go see our national monuments when I got back home so I wouldn’t lose my history.

Fushimi Inari Shrine- Kyoto

What is the biggest lesson you learned from the people?

Efficiency. The Japanese use every second of every day. They work hard and even in the inbetween times of getting to and from are used to read or sleep or catch up on work. So I guess, my biggest lesson was how to take a 20 minute subway nap (*chuckles*). I learned to be efficient in meeting with people and of course even efficient in my trash with all the recycling. At first it was a major inconvenience. But now I struggle doing it any other way. I also relearned how to ride a bike and how to use a squatty!

The Shinkansen- "Bullet Train"

How did Japan challenge your worldview?

I think the biggest challenge was learning not to find something “weird” but “different.” At first, when I would try something new I would say, “that’s weird.” My roommate, who grew up in Japan, pointed out this faulty thinking and let me know it offended her. I realized that things weren’t “weird,” they were different. And different isn’t wrong it’s just different than I was used to. There is always a reason behind why a culture does things differently. I try not to impose my ideas on how things should be done on other people and even after three years there are some things I still can’t understand.

What is your most embarrassing cultural faux pas?

I taught 4th graders. My kids spoke English fluently and one day I was telling them the popular American story of the Three Little Pigs. I got to the part where the pigs say “not by the hair on my chinny chin chin.” The whole class erupted with laughter. Apparently “chin chin” in Japanese means “asshole.” “Not by the hair on my asshole!” Now there’s a good line.

Also, the second week of my first year teaching I heard a truck outside playing “pop goes the weasel.” Instinctively I thought this was an ice cream truck and alerted my class that the ice cream truck was coming around. The whole class laughed and said, “Ms. Johnson, that’s the garbage truck!”

Becky dressed as a Samurai for her 4th grade class.

What were the barriers to understanding and relationship building?

Having to go back to kindergarten to learn a language with a whole new set of characters and sounds. Also, Japanese friends were interested in learning and practicing English. So I had little opportunity to practice my Japanese with locals because they only wanted to speak English.

Give me 1 or 2 things you wish every Japanese new about American community and/or culture.

I wish they didn’t assume that all of America is a Christian nation. This thinking leads to major issues. If you think an entire nation is Christian and then see TV shows of women who are loose or shows with unbelievable violence…if your view of America is 24…it’s a problem. And it’s simply not true. Many people I met think crime is rampant and bomb scares happen every day. It seemed most of what the average Japanese citizen understood about America was based on what they saw on TV. It’s not the best example.

Tokyo Skyline

Give me 1 or 2 things you with ever American understood about Japanese community and/or culture.

I did NOT eat sushi every day. And NO, that’s not all there is to eat. The Japanese people love food and love experimenting with food from other cultures, too. Also, though technology is advanced there, it is not advanced in the same way. People always say to me, “Oh, I bet they had this in Japan years ago.” But that’s not always true. They could care less about HDtv or Blu-Ray. They care more about what you can DO with technology than the entertainment value it can have. They’ve used technology to increase efficiency, and as I’ve mentioned, they care so much about that.

Anything else you want the world wide web to know?

I’m not an expert on Japanese culture. Until the very end I knew I was an outsider and think it’s important not to assume I know something. Learning from the people is the most important thing. Having and open mind, observing, and asking “why?” is imperative. We have to learn from one another. And we have to be open to trying new things. Did I ever think I would eat squid or octopus raw? No. Did it happen? Yes.

Also...as the people of Japan recover from the tragedy that has struck their nation, please keep them in your prayers. They are a lost country in need of so much at this time. If you feel led to give, and have not yet done so, please do!

*All photos are via Becky Johnson


  1. Great, great interview. Very insightful and funny. I still don't know what a squatty is though and her embarrassing stories were hilarious. Love it. Thanks giving us a peak into an American submerged into the Japanese culture! The country certainly has my prayers.

  2. What a great post! I love Japan and I was in awe of the culture when I was in Tokyo.

    Although I can't imagine myself ever saying "chin chin" to a Japanese person, it may come in handy someday!

  3. What an awesome post! I've always wanted to go to Japan - now I want to go even more!

  4. awesome interview! i actually didn't know much about japan, so this helped a lot. loooove the 3 little pigs anecdote! ha, that was really funny. this is a wonderful country that i'd love to visit someday. i am most certainly keeping the japanese in my thoughts more than ever...

  5. Fantastic interview, and gorgeous pictures :)

    I was especially taken with what Becky said about the Japanese view of technology-- caring more about efficiency as opposed to entertainment. That's definitely something to think about....

    My heart, thought and prayers are with those dealing with the aftermath in Japan.

  6. Great post! I'm a teacher in an international school as well, just in Hong Kong!! Love your blog, just discovered it via Kay's "From India with Love".

    I have a travel blog, check me out!


  7. Wow, fantastic interview! So indeptha and insightful. I once lived with a girl from Japan, so it's interesting to contrast your friends view of going there as someone from North America to someone who is Japanese who came to North America.

  8. That is such a great post and wonderful interview. One of my best friends is from Tokyo:) Have a lovely day and see you soon:) Muah