Experiencing the unique Japanese culture, I was able to distinguish differences from my own. Being from a westernised culture, there were many significant confusions and cultural misinterpretations, however past and present research has allowed an understanding of this cultural experience.
A cultural model by Hofstede distinguishes various cultures through five dimensions of power distance, individualism vs collectivism, masculinity vs femininity, uncertainty avoidance and long term vs short term orientation. This allows an understanding of Japanese culture by comparing it to Australian culture through these five dimensions enabling to make sense of my experience. Japan is a hierarchical society with importance to age and power which isn’t significantly different to Australia. Bowing is a form of greeting and respect consistent in Japan especially when entering an establishment. When entering restaurants a formal loud greeting from staff followed by a bow was practised. This is understood as being an exchange of greeting or showing kindness. Even the various Japanese language has informalities and formal language. I used ‘arigatou gozaimasu’, meaning Thank you; however I was told it was a more polite way such as ‘Thank you very much’ rather than just a simple ‘arigatou’.
I also noticed many people brought their palms together in front of their chest before and after eating; saying ‘Itadakimasu’ which means ‘to receive or accept’. This expression of gratitude towards food and the person that prepared it demonstrates the etiquette absent in western culture. I took upon this etiquette as well as bowing in Japan to avoid any culture misinterpretations and to ensure that I was polite in all situations.
When eating, wet towels (oshibori) were provided to clean hands as simple hygiene and commonly replaced with napkins. Some sushi establishments actually don’t provide cutlery and customers are expected to use their hands to avoid spillage and allow easier dipping techniques. In Australia, wet towels aren’t provided and using your hands may be considered rude or lacking of table manners. Slurping soup and food in Australia is considered to be quite rude, however in Japan when consuming Ramen, slurping can be heard throughout the restaurant and is common, displaying to the cook that you are thoroughly enjoying the meal and is actually rumoured that this technique makes the noodles actually taste better (Japan National Tourism Organisation, 2015). I was worried about etiquette when finishing meals and made sure everything was finished- this is actually a common etiquette in eastern cultures.
Japan is highly dependent on convenience. Lots of restaurants had a ticketing system such as a vending machine to choose your meals and prepay in which you would be given a ticket to give to staff with your order. Although most menus had only Japanese, images were accompanied at almost all restaurants. When eating at a popular ramen branch, Ichiramen, customers are able to fill out the degree of spice, how flavoursome the soup is etc. according to how each person specifically likes it. This was then given to staff for your own custom ordered ramen. Every process in Japanese lifestyle practices was convenient and efficient. In saying that, every tourist attraction or popular restaurant had a waiting line but due to the efficient and fast systems in Japan, everything went quite smoothly- even though we did have to wait from 30 minutes to 2 hours sometimes. This is also when I realised that we, in western cultures are quite impatient. Eastern cultures see patience as a virtue and associate it with Buddhism as a value of perfect enlightenment. They tend to take longer in making important decisions and are patient in that due to being a long-term orientated society (Bergiel, 2012).
Site seeing in Japan is largely focused on historical shrines and temples. Rather than being religiously based the temples were spiritually based and are provided as beautiful architecture and landscapes within parks and mountains for tourists. Many shrines visited such as the Meji Shrine or the Fuishimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto were places full of tourists and were the first shrines I’ve ever encountered. Personally I expected these places to be relaxed, reverent and respectful and assumed it to be similar to religious places in Australia that I have been to; however the nature of it being a tourist attraction was strongly evident. However, they were still seen as spiritual places with wishing paper/ wooden plates where people could write down their wishes and prayers and hang them on trees. Souvenirs available at temples related to personal wellbeing, health, money and good luck which were different to typical souvenirs available here, such as a magnet of the harbour bridge. They also highly value a clean environment which was demonstrated through the lack of pollution on the streets and even the high use of public transport or bikes rather than cars.
Japan was a unique experience and was very different to my own culture. The whole culture was recognised as being completely opposite to what I’m used to in Australia as shown in the graph above from Hofstede’s five cultural dimensions. My expectations of Japan were different to what I encountered. Due to pictures and online videos of Tokyo, I perceived Japan as a high tech, busy nightlife city but was presented with a much more relaxed country. It did exceed my expectations with its advanced systems and busier suburbs at night such as Shibuya in Tokyo and Dontonburi in Osaka, but overall the cities were quiet with not many people on streets and empty during the day.
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*All photos are my own unless stated*
Bergiel. EB, Bergiel. BJ, Upson. JW, 2012, ‘Revisiting Hofstede’s Dimensions: Examining the Cultural Convergence of the United States and Japan’, American Journal of Management Vol. 12 (1) pp. 69-77 http://www.na-businesspress.com/AJM/BergielEB_Web12_1_.pdf
Frost. A, 2013, ‘Japanese Culture and Hofstede’s Five Dimensions‘ http://restaurantkyoto.dk/blog/en/japanese-culture/
Hofstede. G, ‘Japan’ https://geert-hofstede.com/japan.html
Japan National Tourism Organisation, ‘Shrines and Temples’ in Japan: the Official Guide http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/indepth/exotic/lifestyle/see.html
Mooji. MD, Hofstede. G, 2010, ‘The Hofstede model: Applications to global branding and advertising strategy and research’, International Journal of Advertising, 29 (1) pp. 85-110