TOKYO — As a junior majoring in journalism, the most logical place for me to study abroad would be London, one of the largest communications centers in the world.
I chose another route – a semester in Tokyo, Japan.
The real reason I wanted to go to Japan was to discover my “roots.” I’m Korean, but by “roots” I mean return to Asia where I was born and to finally be in a society where my looks are the majority, not a minority.
While my petite stature, dark hair and slanted eyes are the norm, my American-ness is most evident through my customs.
Even Americans not living in Japan understand the basic social norm of leaving your shoes at the door, but since being here I’ve encountered much more than just a shoe ritual. At times, the cultural differences are so mind-boggling I feel like I’m living in another time and planet.
It’s common for Japanese homes to keep slippers near a home’s entrance for family members and guests to use while inside. Taking this idea a step further, the Japanese also use toilet slippers, which are worn while using the toilet room (bathroom refers to the shower room, as they are separate). Toilets are dirty, so they have slippers designated for just that one dirty room.
And on the topic of toilets, the Japanese’s love for technology shows through even in their public bathrooms. Each toilet has a “butt squirt” button for cleaning after you do your business, a powerful deodorizer, a flushing sound for if things get loud and some other button I don’t have the guts to try. All seats are heated, so when you sit down and feel warmth on your bum, it’s not because someone sat there for a long time before you.
The Japanese also have money practices unique to their culture. Because money transfers hands, wallets and pockets, next to shoes it’s considered one of the dirtiest things a person can handle. So when you make a purchase, the cashier always places a dish before you on the counter to place your money.
Perhaps it has to do with more than just the dirtiness of money – it could simply be a way to enhance the shopping experience, but a Japanese friend told me that when they place money on the dish, it’s a way of keeping the dirtiness in one place. But you still have to touch it and the cashier still has to touch it, so I’m not really sure how it makes anything cleaner.
Eating on the subway or walking from class to class is the norm in America, but in Japan there are designated places for eating. By designated I mean a restaurant, cafeteria or your home. People don’t eat when they’re walking or out in public because eating is thought of as something you do when you have time to actually sit and enjoy the meal where it’s supposed to be enjoyed.
So it makes sense that there are no trash cans on any streets – maybe only outside a convenience store, and the streets are so clean and there’s not a black gum spot in sight. Similarly, drinking in public is a no-no, yet there are tons of vending machines near businesses.
So where do you consume your drink? At the vending machine of course, and then throw it in the recycle bin right next to it.
Speaking of disposing waste, there’s a specific method for that too. Everything is divided into “combustible” and “non-combustible” and all trash cans are labeled that way. I think anything is truly burnable, but for the Japanese paper and food wastes are burnable and plastics, metals and Styrofoam are not burnable. As a result, there are two separate trash cans for each.
I was eating at a McDonald’s restaurant where I thought it couldn’t get anymore American until I arrived at the trash bins. I went to throw away my entire meal, and realized that you have to separate everything and follow the pictures on the trash can. If you get a drink, you need to take the lid and straw off and throw that in one trash can and the paper cup in another.
I have an entire semester in Japan ahead of me. The cultural differences will continue to amaze and remind me just how different Americans are from the rest of the world. I invite you to join me on this journey – just don’t forget to leave your shoes at the door.
Kaitlyn Dreyling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.