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Cultural Aspects

I’d like to begin by listing off some of the most common differences that may be noticed by foreigners when they first come to Japan.  Since my last post concerning a wide range of cultural differences had so many hits, I find it safe to assume that it is something many people can relate to through their own experiences.  It is also fun for me when people share their own personal experiences.  I’ll make a series of posts like this over the time I’m in Japan, but the ideas are not always flowing in so quickly (nor is my motivation to write about it).

So lets get started from the top, literally.  Hair color.  Hair color in Japan is the same as anywhere else in the world.  You may see someone with green, red or even pink hair in bigger cities or busy train stations.  In fact, the other day I saw blue in an older man’s hair and red in his wife’s hair, both at least in their sixties.  However, black, brown, and variations of blonde are the most common.  The thing is, every Japanese persons natural hair color is black (my dad claims to have brown hair, but any person with eyes will tell you it’s actually black.  So if you would like to argue that some Japanese people have a dark shade of brown go ahead, that’s your argument, but I see black).  Now this may not strike you as particularly odd or unusual since it is the same in many other countries, but the point I’m getting to is that you can easily identify someone’s age by their hair color.  The reason being that students can not dye their hair color if they are still a high school student.

If you’re not very careful though you can make mistakes.  The reason being that after college, when students get ready to search for jobs they are pushed back to dying their hair black.  Businesses will not take applicants seriously if they try to apply to a job with anything but black hair.  I’m not sure why it matters, but it may have something to do with poorly representing the company through employee appearances.

As you may have noticed, there also seems to be a lot of umbrellas on sunny days.  It is a way for people to protect themselves from the sun.  For some people it is a symbol of beauty to have fair skin, but for the most part people are trying to avoid developing moles or damaging their skin.  Not a whole lot to it other than that.  It is something that you will definitely see during summer on a sunny day in Japan.  If fair skin is something that is found to be desirable to a culture then count me in.  On occasion, I get sunburned on cloudy winter days, but enough embarrassing stories about me.

On a different topic, I recently engaged one of my students in a conversation concerning the power lines that seem to have taken over Japan.  For anyone that comes from the U.S., you may immediately think, “wow, there are a lot of power lines on this street.”  However, every street seems to have that sort of feeling.  I can’t vouch for the countryside considering I don’t live in a countryside area, but most power lines are above ground in Japan.  When we were discussing the reason for this, we came across a few possible arguments.

  1. Lack of room underground.  With all of the sewer systems and piping that runs underground along with other things, it causes many complications with what is allowed underground.
  2. Everything is above ground, why change it.  It is possible that everything after WWII, or even before, had been put above ground.  It was easy to access repairs and seemed to be a solid system, why fix what isn’t broken?
  3. Earthquakes.  With constant earthquakes, lines may snap underground when it would be more flexible or more efficient above ground.

Mind you, none of these ideas have any research, but rather this is what we came up with in a twenty minute conversation based on power lines.  We both agreed that power lines have plagued the country.  Japan is extremely beautiful, but since power lines run through some of the most beautiful temples and shrines, it can be an eye sore to a photographer or just someone looking to take in the sights.

Insert next transition here.  Many foreigners say that their encounters with the police in Japan are generally unpleasant.  In my experience, the police in Japan are nothing different than what you’ll find in the states.  I’ve been approached by a police car on one occasion and it was my own fault (maybe).  I had been riding my bike with no light on at night when a cop car passed me.  At the mere sight I turned down a side street in order to avoid any unnecessary confrontations.  To my displeasure, I saw some headlights closing in from behind me.  I turned back only to be greeted by a police car.  They didn’t bother with a siren or flashing their lights, but I slowed down to see if they were indeed after me.  They stopped and asked for my ID and briefly questioned me about when I bought my bike.  As they radioed in the registration number I purchased to avoid problems with bike theft, they read out loud, “Aah! Amerikajin!” (Oh, an American).  They handed me back my card and sent me off without another word.  I guess the police in my area have a warm heart for Americans.  I just hope any future experience is equally as uneventful.  Fun fact about police cars, they don’t have blue and red lights, only red lights.  Another thing is sometimes you will see them driving with their lights flashing, but nobody seems to be able to explain what it means.

Since I’m talking about bikes, why not add a few notes about them.  Bikes in Japan are extremely common.  I have heard people being criticized for riding bikes as a form of transportation in America.  However, you would have to be stupid to not own a bike in Japan, or just rich.  With how condensed Japan is, there are so many experiences accessible to anyone with a bit of travel.  Going by bike is one of the cheapest and easiest ways to go to the grocery, bank, post office, train station, etc.  It also makes it easier for children to manage without a driving license until the age of 18, which is of course the age when you can obtain a license.  The fact that it costs over $3,000 may also be a reason why younger children are encouraged to get used to the idea of using bikes.

Lastly, I’d like to talk about pachinko parlors.  What are pachinko parlors?  They are essentially legalized gambling venues.  Each parlor has a bunch of machines like the one pictured below.  Each machine is secretly set to a certain odd and allows only a certain percentage of winning per machine.  Some people get lucky and others continue to spend money until they hit their limit.  The parlors are very loud since there is a constant flow of small metallic balls running through the machines.  If you win then you receive more balls.  If you lose then you run out of balls and are set up with the option to buy more or go home.  When playing, each ball is shot into the machine by twisting a knob.  To control how hard each ball is shot, you can turn the knob more or less.  If you can find a flow that seems to be successful then you will hold the knob as steady as possible to allow the balls to continue to fall into a desired location.  I have only experienced pachinko on two occasions.  The first time I won $20 and the second I lost $20.  Since I can be quite the poor loser I stopped forever after breaking even.  Each parlor is extremely smokey and usually full of adults.  It is a place that people use to relax and let their mind wander.  I once heard someone say pachinko parlors are places used for meditation and reflection on ones day or week.  I don’t know how true that is, but with the amount of thought that is required for the game, I could imagine it is somewhat accurate.  One way the parlors avoid gambling laws is by rewarding winners with coupons, discounts, or prizes.  I’m not sure exactly how it works considering when I played I received cash, but I’ve heard that some areas are more strict and require the use of loopholes when rewarding winning customers.

パチンコinスロット means,"Pachinko in Slot"

I hope you enjoyed the read!  If you have any questions then please ask!

About travelnihon

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


8 thoughts on “Cultural Aspects

  1. v intresting post as always. .getting to read so many things bout japan n the ways we a different from americans and how much we r similar to japan..i live in nepal btw 🙂

    Posted by itssrijana | March 8, 2012, 8:18 am
  2. My boyfriend taught English in Japan for a year and loved the culture there.

    Posted by new york city permits | March 8, 2012, 3:12 pm
  3. I’m sure it’s far more more enforced in Japan but in regards to the hair colour thing, as another Asian (Indian) I get that same negativity being blond in London, it seems everyone in Europe and the US who is White or Black can colour their hair something other than Brown but it’s a big thing when someone with Brown skin does it. It’s definitely looked down upon by employers and straight after I left school they banned hair colouring (I’d gone from Black to Red to Blond through school). I suppose in Japan though, it’s akin to rules that some companies (such as couriers) have where men are not allowed to have long hair but it would be more widespread and in my opinion more than just wanting their students and employees to be smart. As for your father claiming his hair is Brown, lol so many people do that lol, it’s funny, I’ve done it myself! For many though I think it’s because our hair was lighter when we were really young and we like to imagine that it didn’t get darker (along with our skin) so that we can be different, even if slightly because slightly different is acceptable and coveted, kind of like wanting hazel eyes instead of dark Brown. It’s spread beyond Asian people though, I know many Caucasion people who call their Brown hair Blond when they’d call a paint matching their hair colour Brown.

    I love the parasols! I have a few and a wide brimmed straw sun hat that tons of people make fun of but I love it. Parasols are practical but on busy streets they can be inconvenient and an annoyance but then again umbrellas are really annoying when it’s raining because they become weapons and there’s no space for them, especially the huge ones many people have but everyone puts up with them as they are common, unlike the use of parasols. Perhaps in warmer climates they’re more socially acceptable.

    The power lines are scary. But then, we have chemtrails here so there’s not much difference, the sky is pretty much obscured all the time here too.

    Wow their panda cars look smarter than ours but people are people wherever they are, wherever they come from and whatever they look like and so follows, cops are cops regardless of which country. A bit of power and it’s often enthusiastically used. I remember something similar to your experience though in one of my favourie animes (Arakawa Under the Bridge) where they Japanese mayor tells the British (apparently) priest that Japanese police go soft on people who say they can’t speak Japanese or aren’t fluent. That is no inference on your language skills though, I’m just saying that it seemed to imply a tolerance of foreigners who ‘lightly’ break the law.

    Bicycles are awesome, good for the people of Japan liking them so much out of practically and health? We could follow their example more and it’s happening thankfully but not as much as could be because the roads in cities are so scary to ride on. How is bike traffic in Japan? I’d suppose accessibility for them is better catered for but how are driver’s general attitudes towards them?

    The pachinko parlors sound like arcades. I’m not sure how I feel about their popularity but they’re a bit better than book makers, which sadly to say are most abundant in the poorest areas for example, it is common to have 3-4 bookies on a high street.

    Anyway, excellent post and I love your blog, it reminds me of Angela’s Adventures in Bangalore. Both informative and interesting!

    Posted by dapperdolly | March 9, 2012, 11:22 pm
    • Thanks for the extensive post! I’m sorry my reply was a bit delayed. I’ve been a bit busy with work and new commitments. People may use bikes partly because of the health benefits, but i think it depends on the person. I have heard a few stories of people getting hit by cars while riding their bikes, and I also have insurance that covers me while riding my bike to and from my work. Cars are typically pretty mindful of bikes, but I think bikers have to be careful, too. Also, you are allowed to ride your bike on the sidewalk in Japan which is different from America. The sidewalks in Japan are also much wider in most areas.

      Posted by travelnihon | March 21, 2012, 3:35 pm
  4. When I was in Japan I found myself inside one of those pachinko parlors, the noise was deafening! They had a very interesting way of bypassing the gambling laws: when you win, you swap the marbles for a prize (a toy or something) then you take it outside, in an alley way stall or a building nearby and trade the prizes for money. Then the prizes obviously go back into the pachinko parlor. I also got away with a lot of train fare evading and never once got stopped by a security guard, I assume that they are nervous about talking to someone who cannot speak their language. Another thing that’s interesting about Japan is the speakers at traffic lights and train stations that play bird noises… WTF!? Ahh.. I miss Japan so much!

    Posted by endofthegame | March 12, 2012, 10:00 am
  5. Actually, the use of umbrella during summer is normal here in the Philippines as well. Now, the new discovery for me is that Americans don’t use umbrellas even when they are under the blazing sun? Is that right?

    I agree. I used to go to Japan during summer vacations in my younger days and the police are quite helpful.


    Posted by Anna Lopez | March 21, 2012, 3:10 am
    • Possibly in the case of an older person or a baby, but we stick to sunscreen lotion for the most part. We may set up a large umbrella on the beach, but we I’ve never seen someone carrying an umbrella on a sunny day. I glad you’ve enjoyed the posts 🙂

      Posted by travelnihon | March 21, 2012, 3:13 pm
  6. Nice post.
    It’s strange why so many Asian countries value fair skin while Western nations enjoy a good tan. I guess grass is always greener on the other side.
    I think the reason the Japanese police just headlights sometimes is because it might be late night or a No Honking zone and don’t want to disturb the area. Or the case on hand might not be urgent enough to use a siren.
    The reasons you mentioned for electric wires on the surface make sense but they certainly destroy the beauty of the land. It is so cool they allow bicycles on sidewalks.
    “Quite the sore loser,” I thought I was the only one 😉

    Posted by The Boy! | August 6, 2012, 7:04 am

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