Last October, I finally fulfilled my dream to visit Japan. The cultural shock was not so strong as I expected! Here are some reflections I made to myself while travelling. It only reflects my own experience (I am a French student in Chinese studies) and are therefore to take with a pinch of salt!
1) Islands and monarchs
Obviously, Japan and the UK are both islands. Additionally, England and Japan both are fond of their monarchs. As a French person, I am a bit ill at ease with the idea of a living monarch! I was in England for the Jubilee, the royal wedding and the birth of the two royal babies, and all the fuss left me unimpressed and confused.
2) Strong regional accents
I experienced this first-hand in Yorkshire when I moved from Leeds to Sheffield (an hour away only, but a different accent!). However I do not speak Japanese yet, so I could only notice the regional dialect aspect through comments in manga and anime, therefore I might be wrong.
From the moment I started to live in England five years ago, I was struck by how polite everyone is here in everyday life. Comparatively, Parisians definitely tend to be more aggressive verbally, at least on public transport (we are known as ‘rude’ after all). French people in general are more straightforward in expressing themselves, and we love ‘teasing’ jokes to get reactions out of people: my colleagues at New Leaf in the Union had a few giggles because of my straightforward comments.
I knew that Japanese people are very respectful but I was really surprised when using bullet trains: the ticket inspector bows to the whole carriage when leaving it! I felt a kind of respectful hierarchy between old and young more strongly than in Europe, and that fascinated me.
4) Personal space
It seems to me that in France people are more comfortable making casual physical contact with each other than in England – for example touching someone’s forearm while talking. I guess that living in Mainland China for a year before arriving in Yorkshire really made the contrast obvious: in China my personal space was ignored daily by people pushing or rushing past me. As much as I loved my time in China (amazing food, lovely tea houses, etc.), I also appreciated being left in my own little bubble when I arrived in England.
Strangely that feeling was multiplied in Japan: Tokyo subway users have to be physically close during rush hour but there was a feeling of distance in the way people interact.
5) Punctuality and queuing
About Japanese trains, what really got me was the absolute punctuality of departures and arrivals! That really reminded me of English complaining about trains being late, where usually I have found UK railway reliable.
In Japan there are marks on the platforms for people to queue for each carriage. I had flashbacks to waiting for the bus in Sheffield! Although queuing is mostly respected in France, we are usually less scrupulous as to who should get on first. As to queuing in China, this is another experience all together, although since the Olympic Games people are getting more and more used to it!
6) Gardens lovers
I research Chinese garden history at Sheffield University – there is a genuine love for gardening in England reflected in academia. While travelling through Japan I noticed how front gardens were well-tended and it made me feel right ‘at home’! Of course Chinese and Japanese gardens have similarities, but the manicured zen gardens are very unique. I recommend visiting gardens outside of Kyoto city centre, for example Tofukuji.
7) Fancy dress
During my first year in Leeds, I was a waitress in a central restaurant. Each weekend night there would be an endless stream of people in fancy dress walking past the window. I had never experienced this in France!
I don’t think it is used in the same social context as in England, but Japanese cosplay is a world apart. In Tokyo I visited a maid café and was amazed by the displays of colourful wigs in Akihabara. I happened to be in Tokyo on Halloween night and it was definitely a sight to see!
The one obvious difference: food!
One thing I definitely miss as a French person living in England is the variety of food in the supermarket or restaurants (international food does not count!). In Japan this was not a problem – I was spoiled for choice and really did not know what to try first! The flavours of ice creams were exciting (matcha, sesame, etc) but most of all I got excited by the savoury food which we rarely get in the West apart from sushi. I also enjoyed the bento on the trains!
That’s it for the obviously generalising comparisons! Let me know in comments if you think I got it wrong or have any suggestion for food/visits in any of those countries!