8 American Habits I Lost in Japan

by Louise Hung May 26, 2015

1. Babbling or general uncensored speaking

I’ll admit it, I speak Japanese like a drunk baby.

While I can certainly get by in most commercial transactions, and even have a polite conversation with people (I think I’m polite?), most Japanese speaking requires more thought and precision than I’m used to.

In the US, social niceties, sarcasm, diatribes on the high price of avocados fell out of my mouth with ease. But speaking with people in Japanese not only requires much more forethought and careful word choice, but it also requires me to gauge how the person is responding to my words.

Learning to speak Japanese has not only made me more careful with my words, but it has also made me more observant. Nothing says, “What the hell is she saying?” faster than that panicked look that comes across a server’s face when I think I’m ordering the dinner special, but in fact I’m demanding a pony.

2. Loud talking

I’ve always had a hard time CONTROLLING THE VOLUME OF MY VOICE. In the US, friends joked that they could hear me yammering away long before they could see me. Before I walked down the aisle at my wedding, a ripple of laughter went through my friends and family as they all heard me bellow at the photographer, “But I’m not making a weird face!”

Loud talking doesn’t fly in Japan. It’s a culture of respecting each other’s personal space, and that includes one’s volume. I quickly learned that the fastest way to set myself apart as “that annoying gaijin,” was to speak at full volume in public places. Confused or irritated looks abound when I forget myself and my voice rises to American decibels.

Friends who visit from the US are shocked that I’ve actually become the person asking them to speak more softly.

3. Late nights out

The time I got stranded in Tokyo all night was THE WORST.

While out with friends for Halloween, I missed the last train home to Yokohama (a 40-minute train ride away). I was stuck “partying” until 6 am, when the trains started running again. Partying isn’t partying when it’s 4 am, and the stoop outside the bar is the best place to sit down and hate yourself for a while.

Since then, I pay careful attention to the train schedule. While in the US, 2 am or 3 am nights out were no big thing (thanks to cars and more affordable taxis), but now my nights in Japan typically end at about 11:30 pm — around the time the trains are making their last runs.

4. Wearing tank tops

It’s partly a modesty thing, partly a cultural thing, but most Japanese women don’t wear clothes that expose their shoulders. The first time I visited Japan before moving here, I wore a tank top with moderately thick straps and a moderately low neckline. I thought I looked good.

As I sat on the train leaving the airport, I noticed several of the passengers staring at me. One older gentleman full-on glared at me.

As one point, the older man said a few pointed sounding words at me, and I couldn’t help but feel like I was being scolded. Turning to my Japanese-speaking husband, he whispered that the man actually had scolded me for wearing such inappropriate clothing.

That incident happened in Kyoto, a much more traditional city. And while I now live in much-less-conservative Yokohama, and strangers are less apt to scold, I still don’t wear tank tops, as exposing that much skin still tends to draw stares.

5. Accumulating stuff

I live in a very tiny Japanese apartment. Our apartment is the epitome of “a place for everything, and everything in its place.”

When I lived in America, I was something of a pack rat. Throwing away a busted picture frame would take hours, even days of going back and forth in my brain, “But will I want it later? Will I miss it? Is it worth fixing?” The offending item would generally be thrown in the back of my closet to wrangle dust bunnies and take up space.

Since moving to Japan, the answers to all of the above questions are a resounding, “NO.”

We have so little living space (and even less storage space) that all extraneous items are vetted by one simple question, “Do we need it?” And while no, we don’t live in a sterile, purely utilitarian box, all decorative items were chosen because they hold a special significance. Nothing is just a possession.

Tiny living has made our living space much more valuable.

6. Guarding everything with my life

If I get too used to it, this one may come back to bite me in the ass.

I don’t know if this is just a hilarious joke is being played on me, but it appears that nobody is likely to steal your stuff in Japan.

In St. Louis, people were stealing my stuff all the time. In Honolulu, certain neighborhoods were “keep your purse close” neighborhoods. In Hong Kong, I was told to be wary of pickpockets.

But in Japan, I can comfortably leave my bag on a bench, run around the park like a labrador that just discovered legs, and expect that I’ll come back to find my wallet, keys, diamonds — everything — safe and untouched.

When we first moved here, my husband (who had lived in Japan for years before me) and I had to make an emergency trip back to the US. On the way to the airport, luggage in tow, we stopped at a konbini (convenience store) to get money. As I started to pull my large roller board suitcase into the konbini, my husband stopped me and told me I should just leave it outside by the front door.

“Are you insane?” the former Los Angeleno in me snapped.

Turns out he wasn’t. It’s perfectly safe, even expected to leave your luggage outside the door. That way, you don’t get in other shoppers’ way in the narrow aisles.

I don’t know if this goes for everywhere in Japan, but so far in Yokohama (Japan’s second largest city), none of my left-alone stuff has gone missing.

7. Eating large meals

Let me just state, for the record, that I love food. Food is good. Give me your food, I’ll eat it for you.

Food is especially good in Japan. It’s also small.

Japan is drastically changed the way I eat. Instead of eating three large meals a day, I tend to eat several little meals or snacks throughout the day. Portions in restaurants, delis, or even grocery stores are just smaller.

From what I understand, the small portions are due to a belief in quality over quantity, pride in presentation (a few pieces of fish can be much prettier than a big pile ‘o’ fish), and the need to never waste food, among other reasons. So my stomach and me got used to eating small meals. And now I kind of like it.

The drawback is that now when I’m in the US, all restaurant portions seem ridiculously large, and finishing my meal in one sitting is a matter of determination.

8. Fear of public toilets

Japan is really good at toilets.

Not only are they high tech, but they are clean. Really clean. Almost every public toilet I’ve visited (bars, restaurants, public parks, subways — yes even the subway) has been clean if not downright pleasant.

Often there’s antibacterial spray in each stall to clean the toilet seat before use. More than half the time the seat is heated, and there is a panel of function buttons on the side of the toilet that make you feel like Captain Picard on the Enterprise (functions include music or “distracting sounds”, temperature, warp drive, built-in bidet, and a dryer for after bidet use).

Using a public restroom no longer fills me with dread. I may miss the toilets most of all when I leave Japan.

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