Appreciating Differences: Comparing and Contrasting Japanese and American Culture

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BY NATALIE GEISMAR, JORDAN HUGHES, AND HELEN LI

Over Spring Break, the Global Citizenship Program traveled to Tokyo, Japan as part of our East Asia in the World Spring semester course. For reference, the Global Citizenship Program is a year-long freshman program that introduces students to the fundamentals of International and Area Studies and delves into specific geographic regions. Over the course of five days, we found ourselves immersed in Japanese culture– a culture that is significantly different from our own. In an effort to gain a better understanding of the Japanese way of life, we attempted to identify and analyze a few of the most substantial cultural differences between Japan and the United States. Here’s what we found:

Safety:

The first cultural difference we ascertained was the degree of safety we felt in Japan. Walking through the city at night with our friends, the women in our class felt extremely safe. Tokyo has one of the lowest crime rates in the world, apparently having less than 1 homicide per 100,000 people—this is relatively shocking compared to other industrialized countries.The low crime rate in Japanese society can be attributed to low levels of gun ownership (gun ownership is illegal), low inequality, greater chance of police detection, along with a huge stigma against arrest for any crime. It was a bit surprising at first, just because of how crowded the trains were (insert image). Usually, in this setting, it would be very easy to steal from strangers standing next to you if they weren’t paying attention. However, throughout our travels, we never felt the need to clutch our bags closer to our bodies in fear of pickpocketing on the subway. There was never an urgency to walk faster at night because one of us was a woman. At each subway station and even in dark alleys, we could always find police officers. Strolling by a parking lot full of bicycles, we noticed that many of the bikes were not locked–which is an anomaly on our college campus. Our teachers also never felt uncomfortable letting us explore Tokyo on our own; most of us can agree that exploring on one’s one is a crucial way to truly get to know a place. The ubiquitous presence of law enforcement and the general sense of trust that the Japanese people placed on one another created an atmosphere of security. This greatly lifted one of the most common travel burdens in a big city.

Respect and Silence:

Another stark difference we noticed between Japanese and American culture lies in the value placed on respect between strangers. In Japan, there seems to be an unwritten set of social laws that govern day-to-day interactions between strangers. Japanese people tend to be very respectful of others’ personal space and to greatly value their own space. Walking into a Japanese Starbucks, you will find dozens of people sitting side by side, but allowing for at least a foot of room between each of them. You won’t see anyone sprawled out or with a pile of messy notebooks and folders by their side, as you might find in any American Starbucks (especially those situated near or on college campuses). This respect for personal space is evident in nearly of Japan’s public spaces; even on crowded subways, Japanese people will go out of their way not to shove or bump into others. Even when they do bump into you, you can always hear a quick “Sumimasen!” Or “Sorry!”

Along with respect for personal space, there seems to be a strong emphasis on silence and lack of disruption in Japanese culture. In public spaces such as elevators, buses, the subway, and even restaurants, the Japanese are loath to raise their voices. Coming back to America, one of the first things we picked up on was just how loud American public spaces can be; hearing the boisterous laughter and discussion that fills BD for the first time upon our return was almost unsettling. One has to wonder if Americans’ lack of hesitation to speak loudly has to do with the age-old, very American ideals of freedom of speech and expression. In Japan, a great emphasis is placed on finding agreement and avoiding conflict, which could have to do with the value placed on silence in public spaces.

“Reading the Air”:

One important value in Japanese culture is the ability to “read the air” (空気を読む Kuki wo yoma – in Japanese). It’s the idea that one should always have a strong personal awareness of the surrounding atmosphere and be able to apply it in any interaction. Because politeness during interactions (especially with people you don’t know) is also valued, this ability becomes very important. For example, it’s not customary to reject offers outright or directly. Rather, in order to avoid the embarrassment of rejection, people are expected to read into any hesitation in response and quickly amend their offer to something more preferable to the person with whom they’re interacting. This can be very frustrating to foreigners unaccustomed to these values, and many Japanese people criticize those who don’t understand the culture (like us) for being KY (空気を読む – Kuki wo yomenai hito) – that is, unable to read the air.

When we travel, we have an opportunity to engage and learn more about other cultures and ways of thinking. This trip, despite only being a few days in a single city, helped to widen our perspectives and remind us how diverse and incredible the world we live in really is. When venturing to a new country, it’s important to try to stay attuned to the cultural practices and differences that surround us, so that we may understand the ways in which we can relate to and respect different cultures and people.

 

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