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Japanese Culture 101

So for two weeks straight now I’ve made it to the city organized, Japanese class.  Through the class I am able to take free lessons from volunteers who give their time to improve foreign visitors Japanese skills.  There are several levels of classes and they are all piled into two or three rooms.  I’ve visited the school four times now and each time I’ve had a different instructor, as they try to place me in a class that’s suitable to my level.  Each instructor speaks next to zero English which makes for quick translations difficult.  I find it a benefit that the teachers are unable to explain something to me without using English because it challenges me to know what they are saying in their explanations.  It would also be nearly pointless if the instructors used English in their lessons considering I am the only native English speaker in any of the classes, with exceptions being a few Filipino students that speak English as a second language.

Anyway, I am receiving the benefit of a two hour class, once a week, without any fees.  Additionally, I have the opportunity to make friends from all over the world.  Following my most recent class, I had intended to say goodbye to my classmates, thank my teachers, and be on my way home to study.  However, the instructors had another agenda.  Since I am the only American, I am an easy target when they want a variety of students.  I was quickly rounded up and told to sit and wait without being given any further information.  Considering I had just received two hours of free class, I figured I could give them a few extra minutes of my time.  But a few minutes quickly changed into something a little bit longer.

I was quickly given a survey to fill out in Japanese.  It was a culturally based survey asking where I was from and some differences between my country and Japan.  Other questions asked about any hardships I experienced or any problems I needed help with now or in the foreseeable future.  I was not so interested in going into detail because I was being interrupted by teachers and classmates alike.  Before I could finish I was pushed into another room and given some お握り which is a rice ball wrapped with seaweed and filled with different things in the center and some お茶 which is tea.  I finished my survey, ate my food, and packed up to leave when I was told not to leave yet again.  At this point I had given up hope of going home anytime soon.

We then proceeded into a 和室 which is a Japanese style room.  It was much different from the other classrooms.  The classrooms have large white walls, white floor, white curtains, and carry an echo which makes listening difficult.  The Japanese style room had a place for you to remove your shoes and painted walls.  The floor was covered in tatami mats and women were standing in Kimono’s awaiting our presence.  Here is where I became more interested in what was taking place.

We sat in a row on our knees, which was very uncomfortable, over a red carpet laid out on the tatami mats.  One of the women dressed in a Kimono stood before us and gave a serious speech in regards to the earthquake that took place in March 2011.  She thanked all of us for the support from our countries and wished us well with whatever it was we were doing in Japan.  Afterwards we were presented with a snack and 抹茶 which is a special type of tea.  Each person was presented with a different handmade bowl and we were shown the etiquette when receiving this particular tea and snack.  It was interesting, because when you are presented with a piece of paper for the snack, there are certain steps you must take when receiving it.  For example, The paper is first folded in half.  Then you should lay it on the ground and turn the fold towards yourself.  Once the snack is brought out, you should break it in half and eat one half at a time.  The tea requires similarly miniscule etiquette.  You are supposed to turn the bowl twice with your right hand clockwise.  Then you should take three sips and leave only a small amount of tea in the bowl.  After your three sips, you can finally finish the tea that remains.  Lastly, you turn the bowl counterclockwise two times and set it down on the ground.  If you are interested in admiring the bowl, it is poor etiquette to lift it over your head or hold it up to your face.  Rather, you should put your elbows on your knees lower your head and tilt the bowl in whichever direction you wish to admire.  In my opinion, it’s equally as annoying as having three or four forks when eating at a fancy dinner, but nonetheless, something to admire.

Soon after the tea etiquette, two new women dressed in Kimonos presented themselves and prepared an instrument called the Koto.  It is the national instrument of Japan which has 13 strings which are connected to a long strip of kiri wood.  The first time I heard this instrument played, I was not so crazy about it.  However, when the two women played together, you could see the true skill and talent that was required when playing this instrument.  Not only that, but the sounds that they created were beautiful.  After the performance we were given the chance to play some parts of the songs we listened to.  The song we attempted may be familiar to anyone familiar with Japanese culture.  It is called “Sakura Sakura”

During this time I noticed an older Japanese man across the room that was keeping his eye on me for some time now.  Slowly he made his way over to me and did exactly what I expected him to do.  From the second he laid eyes on me, he wanted to practice his English and poorly mannered jokes on me.  This type of person, for some reason, is quickly identifiable and unavoidable.  He was very kind, but he like all the others, liked to practice his English despite the fact that his English consists of less than 20 words or phrases.  One being that he continuously told an older woman that I wanted to marry her for some reason.  She saw his jokes for what they were, and politely thanked me for honoring her with a compliment.

After escaping the old man, five hours later, I was finally told I could go home.  Although they didn’t say to me, “you can go home now”, but instead I had no longer been barricaded whenever I tried to exit.  All in all it was a great experience.  I did not know what to expect initially, and even though I have experienced most of those things at other times, it was nice to experience it all by myself within an all Japanese context.  Experiences such as this push me closer to the idea of pursuing a Master’s Degree in Sociology or Anthropology.

About travelnihon

I recently graduated from the University and am currently teaching English to all ages in Japan


6 thoughts on “Japanese Culture 101

  1. Brad, you are so amazing!!!!

    Posted by Karen Fitzpatrick | January 23, 2012, 6:26 pm
  2. Written so well Brad. It’s wonderful what you are learning while you are there. I’m enjoying it all!!

    Posted by Grandma | January 23, 2012, 11:06 pm
  3. very nice, thanks for taking the time to share, and way to respect your Nihon experirnce to the upmost!

    Posted by Vish | February 7, 2012, 10:23 am
  4. *experience, I mean.

    whew, ah, yokatta. I just did a free Nihongo class but it was 6 hours a day for a week! here in Kumamoto they also have a wonderful fall full moon festival at the castle where I was lucky to see a koto and shamisen performance

    Posted by Vish | February 7, 2012, 1:04 pm
  5. Thank you for the sensible critique. Me & my neighbor were just preparing to do some research about this. We grabbed a book from our area library but I think I learned more from this post. I’m very glad to see such wonderful information being shared freely out there…

    Posted by Jocuri | March 3, 2012, 7:59 am

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January 2012
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