Dan in JapanJump to Table of ContentsReturn to Main Page
 [learn] I expected... Last updated 
14 Apr 1999 

chuui - warning
I am not an expert on Japanese culture. I conducted no scientific surveys. I am a fallible human being wearing American-tinted glasses. Please forgive me if I make a statement which doesn't seem 100% sensitive. The text that follows is meant to be somewhat entertaining, not profound.

I expected... people to eat sushi and other raw things every day  
When Americans usually think of Japanese cuisine, they immediately picture raw fish (sashimi). They assume that Japanese just walk around eating sushi (raw fish, normally on vinegared rice fingers) all the time. I did this, years ago. I mean, how was I supposed to know any better?

The Japanese eat all kinds of stuff. Here's a quick menu of Japanese ingredients and/or dishes, completely in random order, and nowhere near comprehensive:

donburi - bowl of rice with egg and pork or egg and chicken on top
udon - long white noodles, normally in broth, often topped with something
soba - thin buckwheat noodles, in broth or alone
ramen - Chinese style noodles, served with various ingredients
oden - various ingredients soaked in broth, eaten in winter
tempura - lightly breaded and lightly fried veggies or shrimp
nigiri-sushi - raw fish (or other ingredients) on vinegared rice fingers
maki-zushi - raw fish (or other ingredients) with rice rolled in seaweed
funa-zushi - a Shiga prefecture food, fish fermented in compressed rice and salt
dashi - a broth made from the "bonito" fish, used in everything
miso soup - soup made from fermented soy beans, usually also with seaweed
soy sauce - a popular dipping sauce, made from fermenting and brewing soy beans
nato - fermented beans, stringy and, well, fermented looking
tofu - soybean milk curd
azuki - beans used to make sweet bean paste
furikake - fish flakes and seasonings spread over rice
tsukemono - pickled things (radish, vegetables, quail eggs)
wasabi - Japanese horseradish, normally in green paste form
curry - spicy beef and veggies in sauce on rice
nabemono - "things in a pot", boiled vegetable, fish, meat stew
okonomiyaki - "things you like, fried", cross between an omelet and a pancake
ocha - Japanese green tea
sake - Japanese rice wine

In addition to all of this, the Japanese also eat all kinds of foreign foods: Italian, American, German, Chinese, Korean, Indian (that's where curry comes from), Swiss, to name a few. The Japanese are quite fond of the same sorts of sweets that we think of in America -- chocolate, candy, cakes, ice cream, popsicles, jams, etc. They've definitely imported quite a few things in the last 100 years.

Here is a short list of things that do not exist in Japan, or hardly exist:
Real cheese - All cheese in Japan is like Velveeta.
Peanut butter - They're just not big on it here, and it's REALLY expensive.
Celery - They must not like the taste of it; it only comes sealed in plastic, floating in liquid.
Baking soda - Used to make cookies or cakes rise. It's extremely difficult to find.
Canned soup - You have three choices: Corn potage, cream soup, and onion soup.
Root beer - Most Japanese do not like the flavor.
Filet mignon - No supermarket would dream of selling this in Japan, but I'm being extreme.

I expected... that everyone would be a technophile  
Being that almost every technological device that runs my life somehow is associated with Japan, I assumed that they must be lovers of technology in every way, shape, and form. Not really, I found. Lots of people are not "up on the latest gadgets" like myself and my geeky friends in America.

However, there are cooler gadgets here. The portable phones are approximately 4 years ahead of our own. They're much, much smaller, have longer battery life, can send and receive text messages, play games, fax, play musical tunes, and do all sorts of stuff. And the coverage, because Japan is much smaller, is much more standard (like, everywhere you go).

Their TVs are ahead of ours; they have wide screen TVs in much more abundant numbers, but DVD popularity here was far behind that of America's when I observed it.

Desktop computers with flat LCD screens are much, much more common in Japan than the states. The actual computers themselves though are no much more advanced (and are actually more expensive) than the ones we use. Computer software is also behind in Japan, because Japan is not where it's made, for the most part. Video game software (for TV-based video games) is, of course, ahead (since Japan is where it's usually made).

People as a whole don't seem to be into video games as much as I thought they would be. I think I'm getting to old for video games (no! no! I don't wanna!), though. I didn't get to hang out with many 12-16 year olds, which would be the age group where it'd probably be the most popular.

But it didn't seem to me overall that everyone was head-over-heels about technology. It seemed to me that everyone was just trying to get by on whatever seemed reasonable, and it was the JCMU students that were drooling over the technology.

I expected... that everyone would love animation (anime)  
Animation is bigger here in Japan than it is in the states. Kids watch a healthy dose of it, teenagers watch a healthy dose of it. And it seems that everything's anthropomorphized in Japan. Garbage cans have smiley faces, grains of rice have eyes and a mouth on signs and in magazines, and even trees, hills, mountains, and those sorts of things are usually smiley-faced.

But I thought anime (Japan style animation) would be EVERYWHERE. I thought adults would watch it, and I thought it'd be in all the theaters all the time. It's not. For one thing, theaters are expensive in Japan. You'd rather just rent the video. Adults do read Japanese comic books, which I suppose is different from what you see in America. And in Japan, Disney is much more popular than I thought it would be. Of course, they do have a Tokyo Disneyland, so I suppose it should be.

I expected... that ALL the Japanese people would be very smart  
For some reason, I don't know why, I thought that all Japanese people would just all be smart. I do consider the average American to be pretty darn stupid, but that's just my little preconception about things.

Anyway, it seemed to me that the average Japanese person's brain was not really all that much to hoot about. I do believe that Japanese kids study harder than American kids -- the tests they take to get INTO schools are so difficult. I think studies are taken a lot more seriously in Japan, because society takes school more seriously (which I think is very nice). Teachers are also more respected.

But the average Japanese is, on average, still average. That's just the way life is. Don't ask me what that means.

I do think that since Japanese are more concerned about harmony (see the section on harmony), their actions are more mature (see the section on responsibility), which certainly makes them act smarter.

So I'm not saying they're all stupid or anything, just that they don't have superhuman brains like I somehow thought they would.

I expected... people to say "sayounara" for "goodbye"  
I of course knew a few stock Japanese phrases before I even started learning Japanese. "Sayounara", "Konnichiwa", "Ohayo" and "Arigatou" are the type I'm talking about. So, I thought since they were ones I learned well in advance of studying Japanese, they'd be used all the time. The last three are used all the time. The first I've heard, maybe... one time the whole time I've been in Japan. Ya know what people often say in Japan when they're parting? "Bai Bai!"

I expected... to be taller than everyone  
I of course had the stereotype floating around my head that Japanese people are all short. So, I expected that when I came to Japan, I'd be taller than everyone (I'm 6 feet tall).

Yes, lots of the older generation is short. But the kids in Japan today have a different diet than the older generation, for the most part. They drink milk, eat meat, more grains, more vitamins, and that sort of thing. When I went to Tokyo, I was surprised to find that most people were exactly the same height as Americans. Some people towered way over my head.

I expected... that I could learn it all  
Ha, ha.

I've wanted to learn Japanese for a while. Back in my high school days, I wanted to learn it, but they didn't offer it. When I got to college, I initially didn't want the load of a foreign language class on my schedule. After a while, I tried to learn a little about the language using the Internet. I then decided to buy a "Teach Yourself Japanese" book and a dictionary. I learned a little, but it was slow going, because I had no reason to do it.

I then decided, during my last term at college, that I'd take the Introduction to Japanese class. I'd definitely be able to learn it now, I thought to myself. Anytime I take a class, I take it seriously, so there wouldn't be any putting it off like I could with a "Teach Yourself" book.

I did learn Japanese in that class. I also went to the teacher's apartment once a week to polish my speaking skills (since there isn't enough time in a class of 18 people to practice speaking very much). But the class and the apartment visit was only 5.5 hours a week exposure to Japanese in total. There was still too much "America" around me to distract me, I thought.

So when I heard about JCMU, I thought it was perfect. I wanted to try life out on my own, and I also wanted to learn Japanese, and I also wanted a little vacation (how's 3.5 months for little?), and also the price was right. So, I signed up for a term of Japanese at JCMU.

Surely I'd learn Japanese now. I'd be around Japanese all the time, in Japan 24 hours a day, and be taking an "intensive class", which would teach me an entire year of Japanese in 3.5 months.

Unfortunately, I was around English-speaking students most of the day I wasn't in class. I had a Japanese conversation partner, and a few homestays, so I did get some practice outside of class.

But, my Japanese is still below that of a 5 year old's in almost every respect! And it's not because I was around English-speaking students most of the day. It's because you can't learn a language overnight. It takes years. It takes part of your LIFE to learn a language. It doesn't take a 3.5 month vacation. There has to be something in your life that gives you a reason to NEED to know the language. You have to practice it, live it, be it -- for a long time -- before you could come anywhere close to being a native literate and fluent adult. I'm studying Japanese for NO other reason but that I think it's fun and interesting...

But I don't regret a single minute of learning it. I still think it's interesting, and I still think it would be fun to learn more. And I may have the literacy of a 5-year old, but I can get around Japan. I can buy things, order a taxi over the phone, ask questions about my whereabouts, the location of people, things. I can describe past and future events, intangible and tangible things. I can write simple letters to my homestay families and friends in Japanese. And I can read their Japanese letters if they keep them simple.

Now the question is, how long will it last me? Do I want it to last me? -- that's the answer.

back | forward | contents | home Shigaraki Tanuki Statue