Living in Japan is a life-changing experience. My two years in Kyoto taught me a lot: I got wonderful memories, friends, love for a complicated country and a bit more awareness.
I also involuntarily brought with me some habits that remind me of my life there. After a curry rice カレーライス dinner, sipping maccha 抹茶 in front of my laptop, I started to write them down.
The train is late, I must be at the wrong station…
Japanese trains are notoriously on time. When I used to work there I got on the 13.38 train every day, and never once was it late.
Luckily in London, things work better than in Italy. Can you imagine the shock of moving back to Italy after Japan? Trains, there, can fail to show up at all.
The recent Southern Railways strike, though, almost made me miss my flight from Gatwick: Japan gave me too much faith in public transport. I’m so spoilt now that if the bus is late I wonder if I am at the right stop.
V-Sign in pictures
Who hasn’t seen pictures of young Japanese showing a V sign (V-サイン V-sain or ピースサイン pīsu sain)? We are so used to this gesture to perceive it as deeply rooted in the popular culture of East-Asia, but it actually only dates back to the Sixties and spread in the Eighties, when mass production of cameras kicked off. Some say it began with Janet Lynn, but Japanese media attribute the biggest role to singer Jun Inoue and to an advertisement.
Japanese people themselves cannot say why they do it: it’s kawaii, it relieves the awkward moment of posing and it’s definitely contagious.
I was puzzled at first, but then I gave up. Even now if someone points a camera at me it’s like my hand has its own life. It jumps up and here I am, two fingers in a V shape and my best smile.
According to a recent research – then refuted by some – the V-sign would put you at risk of identity theft. Can this be the right occasion for me to stop posing “the Japanese way” and baffle my friends everytime we take a picture?
I butt in because I’m listening: aizuchi
When talking to a Japanese person it’s important to fill the conversation with mhm, ha! eh? そうですね so desu ne, for the speaker to be sure you’re listening. These interjections are called aizuchi 相槌. They may sound weird to us, but they’re essential for a smooth conversation in Japan.
The most common are:
- はい hai – ええ ee – うん un: yes, with different degrees of formality.
- そうですね sou desu ne: I see.
- そうですか sou desu ka?: Really?
- へええ hee – Whaaat?!
- 本当 hontou? – 本当に hontou ni? – マジ maji? – ほんま honma? (dialect from Kansai): Really? Seriously?
- なるほど naruhodo: I see, alright.
- ask a question repeating part of what has been said by the speaker.
In my two years in Japan, I became quite proficient in the art of “listening loudly” and I brought with me this uncommon skill. Too bad in Europe this isn’t really a thing. Of course, I stopped using Japanese expressions, but I still fill my conversations with “mhm. Ha! Eh?”, relentlessly nodding.
It’s almost spring, isn’t it?
In Japan, seasons are serious business. Not only they have 72, but they think no one else has them. It’s not uncommon to be asked: “Do you have four seasons too?”. I am pretty confident that we do have four in Italy as well.
It took me some time in Japan to start understanding their particular sensitivity to small changes in nature and the reason why they ask that question. There is a season when the first peach blooms and one when swallows are back, one when cicadas sing, or one of the first frost. It’s a very poetic way of looking at things and one of the reasons I love Genji monogatari so much. This side of traditional Japan resonates deeply with me.
I have to admit it’s quite a challenge to look for four separate seasons in London. Even so, I can’t help noticing when the first trees blossom. I bring my camera and take tons of pictures of flowers – one can never have enough pictures of flowers, right? Drunk salary men サラリーマン aside, hanami 花見 times in Kyoto will always be one of my fondest memories.
Bowing (お辞儀 ojigi) is a huge part of Japanese etiquette. It is used to greet, to introduce yourself, to apologise, to thank, to show respect. The way one bows changes according to the situation. Sometimes it’s enough to nod, sometimes you bend forward 45° in front of a customer, or even 90° to apologise if you messed up big time. This habit is so common that Japanese people often bow also when they are on the phone.
Being the very shy, not-too-fond-of-physical-contact person that I am, I gladly welcomed the bow into my life. If I chanced upon a neighbour I would just nod. No awkward moments when I mistakingly say こんにちは konnichiwa at 10 pm. If I met someone new I didn’t have to worry about sweaty hands: a bow was more than enough. Isn’t it convenient?
A bow is worth a thousand words, but not in the UK. Since I moved to London I made myself ridiculous way too many times by bowing to a manager or a colleague. While rushing back to my desk, my cheeks on fire, the thought would strike me that a small part of Japan will always be with me. And that thought made me smile.