Five Cultural Observations from a Keen Foreigner with a Knack for Scrutiny

Alex Nguyen
September 16, 2015

I've been in Japan for a little over two weeks now and it's been a wonderful time thus far. This week was the start of classes after two weeks of orientation and adjustment. The adjustment period, the fight against jet lag, and the overstimulation that stemmed from immersion in a totally new and overwhelming environment have all dissipated for the most part now. I feel like I'm finally in the swing of things and that life isn't totally a blur, a surreal dream, or a panic anymore. Everything feels somewhat in place for me, so I feel like I can finally share a few observations of what I've come to see and know about Japanese society and culture in my initial weeks here as a foreigner.

They are as follow:

  1. Japanese homes are fairly small and modest. I've yet to see what a mansion here looks like, but my initial scan of Japanese homes seems to give the impression that most people downsize their homes, perhaps for the conservation of space and for the sake of efficiency. Areas within homes are compartmentalized and used efficiently; it seems as if no space is ever really wasted or used ornamentally. In America, by contrast, large homes and mansions exist that just boast in their lavish designs and sheer sizes, whereas here, the homes appear rather tame on the exterior. Perhaps the homes of the Japanese wealthy have highly ornate and decorated interiors, much like apartments and homes in large American cities like New York, but I can't say for sure. What I have definitely noticed, though, is that the millions of people living on this island nation all seem to do so with the modesty and efficiency of smaller quarters. I'm into it.
  2. Everything is so clean. I've lived in New York for two years now and I grew up in the suburbs outside of DC in Maryland, so coming here is nothing short of a hygiene shock because everything just looks and seems so much cleaner than in America. Public transportation here isn't full of garbage; the subway tracks aren't festering with litter and grime; streets aren't really covered with stray trash; there's never really smells of garbage wafting in the air within the city; and public restrooms are practically spotless and free of excretory stenches. It's low-key amazing to be in the presence of such cleanliness. Everywhere I've been, I have literally seen people who are paid to clean public facilities, and they do it with such precision and dignity. Kudos to them and their hard work for keeping public spaces in such great condition!
  3. People walk so quickly. I'm a really fast walker myself, so it's quite refreshing actually to be in the presence of other people who have nimble and agile legs. Even in cities back in America where people are always on the go, I've usually been the fastest walker among my acquaintances and those around me. Here, everyone seems to be on a mission. It's not necessarily in the look on their faces, but rather in the swiftness of their gait. Lateness is seen as such an act of disrespect here, so maybe that's what fuels the quick movements. Wherever I go, it seems as if people walking are always in an effort to conserve time regardless of whether or not they actually have a destination. I find myself actively doing the same thing more often than I would in America. I can't complain, though, because I love walking and it's the closest thing I'll get to exercise probably ever.
  4. Things are relatively quiet. When walking in even the busiest parts of Tokyo or just on the street casually with friends, I've noticed that loud noise isn't really a concern. The sound of voices, cars, warnings, and all else that comprises a part in the cacophany of the city doesn't really seem to exceed any level that one would consider ear-shattering. Especially at nighttime, noise seems to follow a human circadian rhythm that ebbs and flows with the time of day. I say this with relative perspective in account because New York is just full of noise pollution. Japan, in comparison, teeters on the quieter side. What I have noticed though, is that izakayas are full of noise and rowdiness, much like any American club or bar. It's strange--people seem to be louder in certain indoor spaces than in outdoor ones where sound isn't as condensed. It's noisy, but not THAT noisy, you know?
  5. People don't stare for too long. Maybe it's just me, but people here don't seem to fixate on foreign sights for too long. Even in America, I get stares and looks that are sometimes too much for my appearance or Otherness. Here, despite the fact that I am a foreigner that does not look anything like a typical Japanese person, I haven't felt any large discomfort in public spaces. I'm extremely observant and I know when people are looking at me, and here, I can feel that their glances are in passing and without much fixation. It's comforting, in a way, to be a foreign sight, but to also be disregarded. There's a heightened sense of invisibility or anonymity that comes with not being a public sight, and I'm here for it.

Well, those are some of my initial and personal observations since arriving in Japan. There is still plenty of time to see if any of the above statements are actually lies, so stay tuned. For now, enjoy the knowledge that Japan is a rather low-key and chill place despite its pace and lifestyle norms. Also, stay tuned for pictures and stories on adventures in the coming weeks and months. Until next time!

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Alex Nguyen

<p>Hi, I&#39;m Alex. I&#39;m a junior at Columbia University majoring in Urban Studies and dabbling in other areas of interest like race &amp; ethnicity studies. Outside of school, I like to eat, cook, take pictures, shop, have long conversations, and travel. Food, fashion, culture, literature, and music are all things I love. Black and gold are my favorite colors. Having lived in New York City for two years now, I feel quite at home. However, living in Japan is something I have wanted to do all my life, so I&#39;m quite excited to finally live out that dream. From the local culture to the food to the fashion, I&#39;m pumped to engage with it all during my semester abroad.</p>

2015 Fall
Home University:
Columbia University - CC and SEAS
Urban Studies
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