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 [learn] What's (not) so great about Japan? Last updated 
12 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.

It can be old, dirty, and unadvanced It's beautiful, and it has tradition
I was surprised at the amount of litter and old rusty junk I found laying around Japan. I thought it would be a very clean country, but people throw stuff on the ground here just like they do in America. Not only that, but some of the buildings here are old, fallen apart, rotten, rusted-out piles of junk. People, if they have a yard at all, will often have old rusty machines, tools, or other kinds of ugly stuff lying around -- right next to their beautiful flowers or miniature gardens.

As far as Japan being old and unadvanced -- I was surprised. I thought the whole place would be a bustling, efficient city, as sparkling and as technologically advanced as the Jetsons'. Nope. Many of the houses and buildings do not have insulation, do not have double-paned windows, and do not have central heating or cooling (yes, I said no central heating). Lots of older houses use a hole in the ground for a toilet.

Speaking of plumbing, Japan often uses open street drains (covered sometimes with ventilated cement tiles so that you can drive or walk over them). Such drains generate a distinctive smell.

Japan has absolutely gorgeous scenery. Snow-capped mountains, bamboo-forested hills, remarkable asymmetric trees, beautifully brief blossoms, lakes and streams and rocks and snow and birds and monkeys. Boy, I'm glad I brought a camera!

In addition to natural beauty, Japan has all kinds of tradition and history that America can't come close to. America's not even a three-year-old next to Japan, a teenager. Shrines and temples and castles predate western civilization on the North American continent by hundreds of years. Buildings aren't the only thing -- Japan has unique cultural traditions that stem from its geography. For example, I'd trace the idea that Japanese people are so harmonious (see the section on harmony) back to the confined spaces in which farming villages were forced to live -- arable land surrounded by mountains and ocean.

Given my pampered modern lifestyle, it's no wonder I come up with shallow criticisms like: "It doesn't have central heat! How medieval!" Japan's been getting along fine for dozens of centuries without central heat, why should all of the buildings in the country suddenly switch over now?

Everything's so expensive It's got railroads, subways, and no tipping
Man, is stuff expensive here. A 5-minute ride from the train station to JCMU by taxi costs almost 1400 yen (about $11.50). A tiny lunch at a restaurant can easily pass 700 yen ($5.80). CDs are almost always 3000 yen ($25.25), videos are usually around 3800 yen ($32), and a trip to a movie theater will run about 1500 yen ($12.50). A jar of peanut butter the size of a small coffee cup costs around 500 yen ($4.20). Connecting to the Internet incurs a 3-cent-per-minute charge, because there's no such thing as a "local" phone call. And of course my infamous heat bill the first month I was here was 26200 yen ($225) -- just for heat for one dinky room (let me tell you how much I did NOT use heat after that month).

Did you want to buy some land or maybe a house? You better have a million dollars, because that's how much it'll cost you for a dinky plot of land with a very modestly sized (by American standards) newly-built modern house (that's $500 thousand for the house, and $500 thousand for the land, which is only a few feet bigger than the house).

Gasoline? Did you want to drive somewhere? It's a good thing Japanese cars get good gas mileage, because one liter of gas costs a little less than 100 yen. That's about $3 per gallon.

I also think everything's so expensive here because it doesn't seem that price competition really exists to the extent that it does in America. All vending machines in the entire country charge exactly the same amount, competing products side by side on the shelves are invariably the same price, and only when you get up into large amounts of money do you start to see some competition, it seems to me.

Stuff may be expensive in Japan, but really, it's that stuff is unusually cheap in America. Most other countries don't have "local" phone calls, for example, and gasoline in America is among the cheapest anywhere. Food is cheap in America because we have enough space to make so much of it (or are able to easily import mass quantities of it). In other words, Americans have it good, and probably don't even know it.

Gasoline may be expensive in Japan, but cars are small and efficient, and you don't even need one to survive. I could easily see owning only a moped or even just a bicycle and living a contented life in Japan. The trains and subways in Japan are very handy -- and eliminate the need for a car for many people. Even in rural areas there are train stations, and all the major cities have massive subway, bus, and/or streetcar systems.

Since the customer in Japan is always socially above the storekeeper in the hierarchy of things, the Japanese consider tipping to be backwards. Which, I think, makes things much easier. If the Japanese wish you to pay for services that they humbly give to you, they will figure it into the price so that there's no need for any awkward tip-decision-making. Which, I also think makes things much easier. That way there's no hard feelings (be sure to read the harmony section).

Japanese is not nearly as colorful Japanese is far more logical
By "colorful" I mean the use of slang, euphemism, shady innuendo, "swear" words, sarcasm , multiply-nuanced synonyms, idioms, pop culture references, intentional pronunciation variances and all that stuff. I was flabbergasted when I watched some American movies while reading the Japanese subtitles. The amount of slang that we have is amazing, and it was all boiled down to mind-numbingly simple phrases that even I could understand as a mere babe in the ways of Japanese.

An example will help explain my point. If any of these phrases appeared in an American movie, they would all most likely be translated into the same Japanese word "ikou":
"Schtep on it"
"Let's blow this popsicle stand"
"Let's get outta here"
"Let's get the [any bad word] outta here"
"We're leavin'"
"Can't do any more damage around here"
"Let's make tracks"
"Let's put some road behind us"
"Let's skedaddle"
"Shall we?"
"Let's move"
"Let's move on"
"Let's roll"
"Let's go"
Only the last one doesn't lose nuance if translated to "ikou".

I have to give another example. When it was cold, I ONLY heard the Japanese say "samui." Granted, there are a FEW other words in Japanese that mean cold, but NOT anywhere near the number of variations we use in English to express our shivering state. Check this list out:
"Cold" "Freezing" "Frigid" "Brisk" "Chilly" "Biting" "Nippy" "Nipply" "Frosty" "Frozen" "Cool" "Icy" "Brrrr"
This list doesn't even include the intensifying words that English speakers often use, like swear words, "very, absolutely, a bit, really, unbelievably", etc. There are so many combinations. But the only two I ever heard in Japan were "samui" and "sugoi samui" (it's cold, and it's extremely cold).

As far as "swear" words go, Japanese doesn't really have the same sort of thing that English does. If you ask a Japanese person to teach you some swear words, they'll probably tell you that there's no such thing.

But I'm being a little unfair. Most "colorful" speech, when translated from any one language to any other language loses nuance. There are lots of things in Japanese that totally lose their life when translated into English. And then there's kanji (characters imported from China), which makes the whole language more "colorful" just by adding pictorial meanings to words (that get completely lost when written with the English alphabet).

I still maintain that there are more variations (e.g. slang) in English. Which makes colloquial English far more difficult.

Japanese is so very logical. It may seem difficult if you know nothing about it or are first learning it (and it is difficult just because it's so much different than English), but the actual way that it works is so simple, it brings a smile to my face every time I think about it. To pick a metaphor out of nowhere, English is your 1040 income tax form, and Japanese is the form you fill out to deposit $10 into the bank. I love examples, so here's one:

In June, on the 6th, at 6:00, I'll be in Cityname, at the park, on the shore.

First of all, delete all the italicized articles (why do some words use articles and some don't?). You won't need those in Japanese. Secondly, change every single bold preposition to the particle "ni" in Japanese (particles come after words in Japanese, unlike pre-positions in English). Take out "I'll", because it's unnecessary in Japanese. Also, take out all the commas, because they're also unnecessary. After moving the verb to the end (because verbs are ALWAYS at the end in Japanese), let's see what we have:

June ni 6th ni 6:00 ni Cityname ni park ni shore ni be.

Next, let's sort of translate it into Japanese. Months in Japanese are just the "number" character and then the "month" character (which surprisingly enough, is the same character as moon -- imagine that!). Likewise for dates and time. So, use your imagination and pretend this is real Japanese:

6-month ni 6-day ni 6-hour ni Cityname ni park ni shore ni be.

There you are! See how insanely simple Japanese's structure is? English is an irrational mess by comparison.

Kanji Lesson 1
Take a look at the above characters. It's time to learn a little kanji (again, kanji are Chinese characters imported into Japanese hundreds of years ago). The first character means sun, and can be pronounced "ni". You can see how it sort of looks like the sun, right? (It changed over time from a simple circle to become more square and easier to write with a brush.) The second character means tree. This one I hope I don't have to explain. It should look somewhat like a tree to you. The third one is a tree with an extra line at the bottom -- the roots of the tree. Well, the roots of a tree are the ORIGIN of the tree, so this character means "origin", and can be pronounced "hon". Now, what happens when you combine two kanji? You get a new word with a logical new meaning! Imagine what the Chinese were thinking, many, many hundreds of years ago, when they found out about Japan. They gave the country the name "nihon." Hint: the sun rises in the East and sets in the West. The named it the country of the "origin of the sun," because it looked like the sun rose from the islands we call Japan. Makes sense, right?

Kanji Lesson 2
Here's another. The first kanji means sun, which you already knew. The second one means temple, and is pronounced "ji" (that's why many of the temples you may have seen on my Web page end with "ji"). The third is a combination of two kanji to make a third. What would a temple do for you thousands of years ago each day while the sun was up? It would probably ring a bell for you so you knew what time it was. So, this character means "hour"! The last combination is three lines, and then the "hour" kanji. Can you guess what time it is? See? Easy!

Nobody speaks to strangers Harmony is Japan's middle name
When I first came to Japan I was surprised to find that nobody speaks to strangers. Ever. Words swirling in my head about the Japanese people before I came to Japan were something like: "humble, aim-to-please, friendly, and calm." Friendly doesn't quite fit in there. They don't strike up conversations with strangers because that's exactly what they are -- strangers. If you're in Japan, you don't talk to people you have no relationship with. The instant some sort of social relationship begins, then you talk. So, merchants spout all kinds of humble words onto customers and hosts pamper their guests with kind words (and actions). Since most of your time as a visitor in Japan is spent as a guest or a customer, you might assume that the Japanese are friendly and humble. But if you actually live here, you find that everything is dictated by a social hierarchy. All men are not created equal here in Japan -- and the Japanese are OK with this. (All men are not created equal in America either, but we complain when we realize we're not achieving such an ideal.)

Your attitude and words are thus dictated by your position in the hierarchy in relation to the person you're speaking to. For the purposes of these examples, let's define all the possible ways in which you can talk to someone else like so: rude, silence, plain, polite, and humble. Here are some English examples:
Rude: "Take it!"
Silence: ""
Plain: "Here."
Polite: "Please accept this."
Humble: "It's nothing, but I'd be grateful if you'd accept it."

Student -> Teacher
Students use "polite" speech, and teachers are allowed to use "plain" speech, but often use "polite" speech (especially when first teaching Japanese to foreigners).

Sibling <-> Sibling
Technically one sibling is always older than the other, but in practice, usually siblings just talk to each other in "plain" form. This has to do with the concept of "uchi" and "soto." "Uchi" means inside, or "within the same family or group", and "soto" means outside, or "outside of the family or group." This concept often dictates your actions and level of politeness in speech. You are usually more polite to those outside your own group.

Wife <-> Husband
Again, technically, the husband is above the wife in Japan, but in practice, spouses talk to each other in "plain" form. They're both in the same "uchi."

Child <-> Parent
Again, technically, the parents and the family as a whole are above the children (also evidenced by the fact that in Japan, your family name is written before your given name), but children and parents seem to me to always use plain form. They're both in the same "uchi."

Friend <-> Friend
It depends on the type of friendship, but two really good friends would be likely to use "plain" form, and two very new friends would be likely to use "polite" form. It also depends upon your level in the hierarchy of things. If your friend is much higher than you are (you're the new guy, and your friend is a seasoned pro), you should think about using "polite" form to your friend. It also depends upon whether or not you view your friendship as within an "uchi" (like classmates are in the same "uchi") or outside of your "uchi" (if you were friends with someone from another company or neighborhood).

Stranger -?- Stranger
You just don't talk. You don't say hello, you often don't say "excuse me" when you push your way through a crowded train, you just don't say anything. There is no defined relationship between strangers.

Merchant -> Customer
Ok, you're definitely "soto" in this case, so both of you should use at least "polite" form. Since a customer is higher than a merchant in the social hierarchy, merchants will sometimes switch to "humble" form. If a customer just isn't feeling up to "polite" form at that moment, the customer can always use "plain" form to the merchant, because the merchant is lower than the customer.

Host -> Visitor
These are usually "soto," too. If we're talking about a big formal organization for a host, you'll definitely hear "humble" form from the host. If we're talking just a family inviting someone over for dinner, you might hear a humble word here and there, but usually just "polite" form. The visitor in whichever case usually just sticks to "polite" form, but sometimes will use "humble" form.

Complicated enough for you? The solution if you're a brief visitor in Japan, you're told, is to "always use polite form" and you'll usually be fine. After you learn this type of thing, you're expected to sort of fit in with the rules and follow the hierarchy.

Japanese 'wa' character The harmony I'm referring to is called "wa" in Japanese. In fact, the character for "wa" is often used to mean "Japanese style." So, the concept is central to Japan itself. It's so important that it guides actions, it subdues your individuality, and it binds your group together. The harmony of the whole is what people think of when they think of the "correct" thing to do. Since there's no Puritan/Christian/Judaism background to create morals in Japan, there has to be something else to stop society from destroying itself. This something is "wa".

For example, you don't argue with your coworker because that would destroy the harmony of the office, and interrupt the entire system in which all the employees expect to operate efficiently.

If you have a concern you wish to voice to a party with whom you interact regularly, you normally use a go-between. Let's say your neighbor is always dumping his garbage in your yard (if you have a yard). Instead of confronting your neighbor with such a concern, "Hey, mac, wouldja stop dumpin' that in my yard? Otherwise I'm callin' the cops!" (which could cause hard feelings, a fight, a worsening of the situation, or suspicion of your upbringing by all your other neighbors, friends, and family), you would instead ask another neighbor to help you out. You'd explain the situation to him, and he would then go talk to the garbage-thrower for you. Once the garbage-thrower worked it out with the neutral neighbor, everyone would be happy, and no one would have been placed in an uncomfortable situation.

At JCMU, sometimes when a Japanese host family is displeased with what their American student is doing (like staying out late at night, for example), they'll tell JCMU, and JCMU will tell the student. The student and JCMU will then work it out. Again, nobody feels uncomfortable, and everyone (hopefully) gets everything straightened out. The "wa" will have been preserved.

In order to promote harmony in business meetings, everyone speaks in an indirect manner, so as not to surprise or offend anyone. Also, if something is being decided in a meeting, people will often feel around before the meeting so that they know what the general consensus is. They wouldn't want to destroy the "wa" of the group by blurting out something counter to what everyone else was thinking. Also, if a contract is being decided upon with a meeting, parties will always have already read the contract in advance of the meeting. They will have already ironed out any kinks in the contract (sometimes by using a go-between).

Couples even use a go-between. Often at weddings there is a certain special spot reserved for the "go-between" that sometimes introduced the pair, and helped the pair along with any rough spots leading up to the wedding... The one who preserved the "wa" the whole way along.

I think preserving "wa" is a pretty useful concept, personally. My favorite one is this: in legal contracts in Japan (which are about 100 times shorter than contracts in America) often there is a clause that goes something like this: "and if anything else comes up, we can just work it out in good faith to the spirit of the agreement." THAT would NEVER fly in America! But it does in Japan. People care so much about preserving harmony, especially of contractual agreements and social relationships, that such a clause is more important than one hundred specific clauses and a room full of lawyers. Japan has very few lawyers, as you can imagine. They do have companies that act solely as go-betweens in negotiations, though.

To bad this preserving "wa" stuff only works if everyone agrees that it's a good idea, though. If there's one bad seed, that bad seed could take advantage of all of the others with the open-ended contracts. But, in Japan, there's hardly ever a "bad seed" that has no connections to anyone else (see the section on personal freedom).

I think we'd all be better off in America if everyone gave more thought to "wa" before they opened up their big mouth... What do you think? If you disagree with me, tell your friend, and have him send me email (wink).

You don't have as much personal freedom You're expected to be responsible
You don't have as much personal freedom because of the way groups work in Japan. If you've read the section on harmony, you know that you can't just go against what everyone else is doing or thinking. This limits your ability to be an individual in the sense that Americans usually think of. Not only that, but you have lots of connections and obligations to others.

One of these is called "giri", which can be translated as "social obligation" or "debt of gratitude." If someone does something for you, you become obligated and connected and socially involved with that person. You accumulate "giri" that you must repay. Examples are always helpful:

Let's say you're a JCMU student and you're living at a homestay (with a Japanese family, that is). This family has brought you into their home, fed you, given you a roof, transportation, access to their very lives. You now owe them. You have "giri." I have heard a story similar to this from quite a handful of JCMU students. The student builds up such "giri," and then the homestay family asks the student for something (Can you help my kids with their English homework? Can you go over to the neighbor's house and help them do such and so? Can you come with us to this particular event rather than go out to drink with your JCMU friends?). Your course of action? You do what they say. You really have no choice. They'll always phrase it so that it's a suggestion. "Would it be OK if...", "Would you like to...". But it's not a suggestion! It's a request. It's a withdrawal slip on your "bank of giri."

Of course, you can generate "giri" in others, too. If you do something awfully nice for someone else, give something awfully nice to someone else, or something of the like, you just bought that person's soul (I'm exaggerating a bit, here). What I mean is that you can then very casually suggest something to that person, and you'll probably get your wish granted. I'm giving this the wrong spin. You're not really supposed to use "giri" like a weapon or a force, but rather as a social glue, a social feedback device that tells you where you stand with others around you. I'm giving it a sadistic spin to clarify how things can work in Japan when it comes to personal freedom. After interacting with lots of people your whole lifetime, you can imagine how many binding social connections you'd create. Many people are in debt to you, and you're in debt to many people. And I'm not even including family in this explanation.

There's also the fact that "groups" in Japan are important. In Japan, you're always a member of many groups. Your family, your coworkers, your fellow classmates, your neighborhood, your sports team, whatever. When you're a member of a group, you usually sort of go along with what they do. You can trace it back to harmony, you can trace it back to obligations to what they've done for you, whatever. In any case, it works like so:

If the entire group says they're going out to the bar for a few drinks, you go. If you want to go home and sit all alone in your room and do what you want to do, that's too bad. You should go anyway. Not only do you promote the strength of your group, you promote its "wa" (read the harmony section), and create a more close, efficient atmosphere in whatever place it is that you meet (school, business, etc). In Japan, loners are looked upon strangely. People that don't rely on others and have no one relying upon them must have something wrong with them. Personally, I trace it back to the fact that Japan is a small island country with little patches of land surrounded by mountains. Back before there were Nintendo Game Boys, there were small farming communities. These communities had to work together to survive and keep from getting on each others' nerves. They tried to preserve "wa", tried to strengthen the farming group whenever possible by using bonds of obligation, and tried to use ostracism as a penalty for discord. It was effective. It deterred crime. It kept society functioning. It still deters crime and still controls society, even today. But, if you like to be an individual, maybe Japan is not a good place to grow roots.

Sometimes Americans are really disturbing. I know I'm not the only one sick of hearing about lawsuits where someone hurt themselves because they were careless, and then extracted millions of dollars from a company for their "emotional loss" or something else crazy like that. I'm somewhat sick of the safety rails and the "point this 2-liter bottle away from people's eyes when opening, or injury could result" messages. Aren't you?

In Japan, there isn't much of this kind of absurdity. You're expected to be responsible enough. And if you're not, you and the party you think should have been responsible will settle it out, preserve the "wa" (read the harmony section), and avoid contact with a lawyer. Here come the examples:

Bakery stores in Japan just leave all the bread out in the open. No sneeze guards, no plexiglass casing. No one is going to sneeze on the bread, and no one is going to sue your bread company for millions if they get sick because they think they ate bread that was sneezed on. People are just not as irrational as Americans when it comes to such things.

If you've got something that you're carrying, and you need to set it down, you can just set it down. You can walk off, and when you come back 5 hours later, it'll still be there. I've seen this done more than once. I've seen things left on a train, and when the train goes all the way to the end of its service route and comes back many hours and many stops later, the articles are still there. No one takes them.

Stores in a "mall" type establishment don't have walls like they do in America. Granted, stores still have anti-theft devices (CD stores still have the little detector stickers and gates on the exits). But in malls, stores have stuff spread way out into the open. It's very hard to tell when one store ends and another begins, because they're often not separated by walls, and their merchandise goes way out into the walking aisles. You're expected not be stealing things (there are security cameras every once in a while). It's kind of refreshing, stores trusting me.

Whenever anybody goes to Lawson Station (a 24-hour convenience store) in a car, they just leave their car running, with the keys in it, and walk into the store for 5 minutes. They'll even do this at 2 in the morning.

When I went to a museum, they had hundred-year-old artifacts sitting right in front of my face, not covered by a display case or a fence or anything. I could have reached out and shattered them. I could have started them falling like a row of dominos. They'd never go for that in America. They'd have them all locked up under a display case.

They sell alcohol and cigarettes in vending machines out in the middle of parking lots. They expect you to be responsible enough to not buy the items when you're not supposed to. Or, they expect the parents to be responsible enough to control their children. Or, they expect people to have enough ties to others so that no one could get away with underage buying without someone else finding out.

If you get caught doing a small crime (driving in this country when you're not supposed to, to use an example that I heard about), you have to go talk to the police. Sounds the same so far, right? Here's where it changes: You have to apologize. You have to write a letter of apology in the vein of: "I'll never do it again, I am sorry." The people in charge of you (JCMU) have to apologize. You damaged the social relationship you had with the city you live in. Your letter goes on file. If you ever get caught doing anything again, they pull out your letter. We thought you said you'd never do it again? You disappointed JCMU, you made the whole school look bad in front of all of the people that made JCMU possible. You're not helping the "wa". You're causing problems for all of the other students and people in the city. You're going against the group, and people are not being responsible enough for you. Are you catching on to how Japan works yet?

I really like Japan for that sort of attitude. Instead of having the government babysit me, I'd rather be allowed to control myself. But it only works because of the society. You have to have the government and the courts babysit in America, because the population acts more selfishly and childishly than the Japanese in that respect. The population in America is not bound together with ties of obligation and group motivation and "wa" preservation...

It might be hard to bake your own cake Japan was based on healthy food
It might be hard to bake your own cake, or your own cookies, or your own pizza any larger than 8" in diameter. Why is this? Because Japanese kitchens rarely have ovens. Sometimes they have no baking oven of any kind. A toaster oven and a broiler oven (each just big enough to fit two slices of toast and a single fish into, respectively) is sometimes all you'd have in a kitchen. I have seen a number of people with microwave ovens that double as "convection" ovens. They're the size of a small microwave. When you use them as convection ovens, they heat a tiny amounts of air at a time to the desired temperature, and circulate the air around. I don't believe they actually have a giant heating element in the bottom like an American oven does. My experience with convection ovens is that they take quite a bit longer than an American oven, and they don't heat thick things as thoroughly. I haven't had too much experience, but a little.

Why is this? Space. Japanese ranges are just 9" high devices that sit in a little depression on the countertop, and use a hose to plug into your gas outlet. From the top it looks just like an American range, but from the front, you can open up the cupboard doors below it. It's all about saving space in Japan. In the "I never expected..." section, I give some more examples of how everything is smaller.

Because people can't bake stuff like that, there are a lot of bakery stores in Japan selling cakes, breads, and cookies. The Japanese may have eaten healthily 100 years ago, but we Westerners with our cakes and confectioneries have since spoiled 'em.

Let's say you live on an island. Let's say there are lots of mountain ranges, and there's lots of coastline. Let's say the land is pretty arable, the climate is pretty wet and warm, and you wanna create a meal plan. What do you eat?

Aquatic life, for one. You're surrounded by it. Fish, shellfish -- you can get boatloads of the stuff fresh every day. What do you do? You eat them fresh. As fresh as you can get them. How about raw? It's not only delicious, but extremely healthy and convenient. Lots of protein and other goodies without much fat. You also eat seaweed, because it's abundant, and good for you.

You also grow rice. It grows better than wheat or corn in your climate, and it'll provide you with the starches and the carbohydrates and all that good stuff. So you make a bunch of rice paddies and keep them wet so the rice'll grow properly. I suppose you could also import some vegetables from China and grow those, too.

Refrigeration won't be invented for hundreds of years, so you'd better make pickles. Lots of pickles. You pickle and ferment eggs, fish, radishes, vegetables, beans, and stuff like that. And by pickling or fermenting lots of things, you not only preserve them, but you get tasty things you wouldn't have without the fermentation and pickling. Thus, miso soup, funazushi, pickled daikon, nato, tofu, soy sauce, and all sorts of things of the like are added to your menu.

You don't really have all that much room for cows, so you might as well forget about drinking milk every day. Maybe tea would be better. Growing it would be easier than taking care of cows. You drink tea all the time, because it's easy to make, and it doesn't go bad. A warning though -- because you'll only be getting small amounts of calcium from certain fish (say, shrimp), you won't grow quite as tall as you would if you were to drink milk. That's no big deal, though. You just build your doorways and such about 6 feet tall. You also make your houses smaller. You save on space -- which is a good thing given your geography. What a difference your meal plan makes! You need to get protein and vitamins from somewhere other than fish, so you also eat beans and things made from beans. Soy beans, for one. In fact, when there's a special occasion and you're in the mood for something sweet, if you have some sugar, you mix it with beans in various ways to make desserts that are actually healthy. And for some reason, you take some rice and beat it until it becomes doughy, and you call it mochi. Then you take this sweet bean stuff, coat it with mochi, and teach your descendants how to do the same. Many hundreds of years later you'll sell it to a foreigner named Dan who'll be visiting your country and writing goofy paragraphs on how to create a meal plan if you were to live on an island country like Japan.

You might have to hold back You can get naked and relax
Yes, in Japan there are two words that define how you act toward others. I've already discussed "uchi" and "soto" in the "Nobody speaks to strangers" section, so I don't mean these two words. I mean "honne" and "tatemae".

These two concepts do exist in the West, too. So, you should be able to understand what they are without too much trouble. Let's say you're an American in America. Let's say you see your boss on Monday morning, and he's wearing a hideously ugly yellow hat:

Boss: "I just love yellow hats. Yesterday I drove all the way to the closest yellow hat store, which was like 110 miles away. They were having a closeout sale, and I picked up this one for only $250! I love it! I guess I have to, though, because I can't take it back now! Heh hah! What do you think? Does it make me look dapper?"

You respond with which one?:
A) "Ha ha! You look like a fool, boss!"
B) "Sure... maybe a little..."
C) "Yeah, it kind of does!"
D) "Whoa, better tell the ladies to watch out!"

Choosing B, C, or D is "tatemae" (increasing in degree from B to D). "Tatemae" means "building a front". You're not lying, really, you're just putting up a polite front so that you won't hurt your boss's feelings (or destroy your relationship with the company). The choice "A" is "honne". "Honne" means "real feeling" or "real intention". It's what you actually believe, but usually never say.

The Japanese, more so than Americans, usually have a big difference between their "tatemae" and "honne". We Americans do say polite things sometimes rather than what we really feel, but we also do say exactly what we feel in many situations. The Japanese rarely say what they really feel, especially in a polite situation. Why is this?

Remember the section on harmony. Harmony is important. You can't have harmony if you're shooting your mouth off at every opportunity, badmouthing those you have social relationships with or obligations to. So, you use "tatemae" to maintain the delicate balance of harmony that society constantly maintains.

This, unfortunately, means that it's hard to get the TRUTH out of a Japanese if you ask them a question to which they would have to answer "no":

Me: "What do you think of the Japanese sentence I just said?"
Japanese: "It was good. You're so good at Japanese."
Sure. Uh huh.

Me: "What do you think of Americans?"
Japanese: "They're very nice."
Sure. Uh huh.

So, the Japanese don't like to say "no" because they have "tatemae" and they like to preserve harmony. By extension, they also are not usually noisy or rambunctious. If you want to fit into Japanese culture, you need to learn "tatemae" and learn how to restrain yourself in a similar way. Otherwise you stick out as if you were wearing a hideous yellow hat.

You may have to restrain yourself in Japan, but you certainly don't have to worry about getting naked. Since the Japanese don't think the naked human body is "dirty" or "sinful" like us messed up Americans (remember, their ethics don't come from our religious history), they don't have a problem using public bath houses.

I can remember when I first heard about a public Japanese bath house, years ago. I thought it was crazy. ME? Get naked in front of a bunch of strangers? That's sick and wrong! What kind of screwed up country are they runnin' over there? Why did I think this way?

Because in America you are taught that nudity is sinful. Nudity is always sexual in America for some reason, so it is to be avoided, or to be placed alongside sex and violence in a movie theater. Well, folks, nudity is not always sexual.

If you don't know anything about a Japanese public bath house, here's how it works: You pay your fee, enter your side of the bath house (male/female), take off all your clothes, and sit down next to a shower hose (there are bunch of faucets lined up on a wall with a bunch of stools next to them). You soap up, scrub down, and rinse off. Next, depending on the size of the bath house, you can choose to enter one of the 4 to 12 relaxing areas of the bath house: Steam saunas in which you can melt, whirlpools on which you can float, hot mineral baths in which you can soak, salt saunas in which you can scrub, Turkish steam baths in which you can sweat, giant columns of falling hot water under which you can relieve tense muscles, and pools of cool water into which you can dip if you get too warm -- to name a few of the places I've seen. You can stay as long as you like. Everyone's naked, and no one cares. The first time I went to one, I was really self-conscious, but after I dipped into the mineral bath and felt the most relaxed I've ever felt in my life, I understood. And then when I left the bath house, I got mad at Americans for being so silly.

Not only is a bath house extremely relaxing, but after I visit them I feel cleaner than I ever feel after an American-style shower. All that soaking and sweating and rinsing makes your skin so soft... And there's no annoying chlorine like hotel whirlpools and pools in America, because the water is constantly being refreshed, and the place is always kept spic-and-span by the owners.

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