Month: 2月 2014

11 Things You Thought You Knew about Japan – 1 of 2

Mt. Fuji View

This week, I’d like to share with you 11 things that people think they know about Japan.   

Hang on a minute – What about Japanese people?  What do they think they know about the UK? 

I think it is not overstating for me to say that tens of thousands of people in Japan don’t know much about the UK.  

For example, when I lived in Northern Ireland, a few Japanese friends of mine asked me questions like:

“what language do they speak, can you understand them and make yourself understood alright?”

“Are there polar bears?”

– It shows how much, or how little, we know about each other. 

Likewise, I think it is fair to say that the majority of British people know little about Japan.

It’s been over 20 years since I saw Mr Duff, a English teacher on British Affairs from England.  

He said to his students that he expected all Japanese people to look like Samurai, wearing Kimono, when he first came to Japan (quite a few years ago then, but still).  

He was proven wrong soon after his plane landed and got his feet off the steps – dove into this big city in the Far East called Tokyo.

“C’mon, it’s been over 300 years since those feudal time ended.  You’ve got to be kidding!

I thought.  I was one of his students, and at that time, I couldn’t get my head around why on earth he should think that.  

I thought:

“surely, he’s seen footage on TV of modern era, everyone wears Western style clothes!?  

And, everyone must have known about the huge economic development in Japan over the past 40 years, if anything.  

Where did he get this idea from??”

Over 10 years later, after I graduated from the university and moved to London.

It was only then that I gradually started to understand where his stereotypes might have come from.  

In London, the buildings have not changed too much in the past 50 years for example, compared to the way Japan’s cities have changed.  

They have changed so much that I wouldn’t be surprised if you couldn’t recognise it as the same country if someone showed you a picture 50 years ago and another of now.

 1.      Japanese Curry

Have you ever been to a Japanese restaurant and ordered Chicken Katsu Curry?  

Did you wonder why curry in Japanese restaurant as Japanese menu??  

Besides their curry looks nothing like Indian curry – where does it come from? 

Well, you’re not the only one – I wondered about that myself…!

Curry in Japan or FROM Japan is believed to have been introduced to the country via British Navy in the Meiji era (late 19th century).  

The Imperial Japanese Navy adopted it from them.  

At that time it was considered to be Western cuisine for that reason, and has been loved by the whole population ever since.  

The ‘authentic’ or original Indian style curry is differentiated from what’s called ‘curry (ka-ray)’ in Japan.  

It is usually called “Indo Karee,” but it doesn’t change the fact that both have been popular in Japan, although Indian style curry is seen as relatively ‘new’ in Japan. 

The curry which came via the English Navy has developed and evolved in its own way, such as almost every household has their own recipe and way of making it.  

There are such a wide range of curry and curry-inspired menu available in many restaurants in Japan – which proves its popularity in the country. 

The interesting thing is, it is said that “curry is not much affected in economy down turns or recessions” as it becomes all the more popular because it is most affordable as well as tasty.

2.     Climates & Local Foods 

No, it is not tropical all over, and yes, in summer, you can easily encounter scorching heat.  
Japan is an island nation – an archipelago extending wide east and west, and north and south as well.  

The northern part of the country generally has cooler summers and colder winter, whilst the southern part of the country has relatively warmer summer and milder winter.  
It does get a lot hotter than in the UK or many other European countries, nevertheless, it does get cold in winter and can get colder than in Europe. 

In certain areas, especially big cities with concentrated population and architectures, summer heat waves can be serious.  
Thousands of people were rushed to hospital and some deaths were reported last summer.  
In winter, lately there have been Heavy Snow Warnings and hundreds of injuries. 

None the less, spring and autumn are beautiful.  
The climate tends to be mild, and seasonal food, flowers and even specific insects such as fireflies and bell crickets (!) play an essential role in the harmony. 

 3.     National Flower of Japan?

This was the question Mr Duff asked us in the class, and it was so embarrassing that I could never forget – none of us in the class could answer!  
The truth is we don’t have an official one.  
A lot of people in Japan and overseas identify Sakura (cherry blossoms) and perhaps Kiku (chrysanthemum) as our national flower(s), though.

4.     Population in Japan

It is about 125 Million at the moment, which is approximately twice as large as that of Britain and a half of the United States.  
Although having said that, due to the well-known dwindling birth rates, combined with a rapidly ageing population, the population peak of 128 million has been declining.  
On the contrary, pets outnumber children and pet industry is a fast growing industry in the country.  
There are special patisseries and salons for pets; birthday parties held for the pets with their ‘friends’ that are similar to the ones held for children
in Western countries and also there are pet-friendly luxurious accommodations and restaurants.  
This industry has been developing and diversifying.  
It is said that the biggest reason for the country’s dwindling birth rate is less sex as men fear failure and rejection by women.

5.     Japanese Language

Isn’t it a minor language because it is only spoken in Japan?

False: Japanese language is the 9th largest language by the number of speakers who uses it as their mother tongue in the world, and the 4th most used language on the internet. 

There are approximately 125 million mother tongue speakers.  It is called Kokugo (= national language) in Japanese.  
Some people assume Japanese is similar to Chinese, but it is not.  
The word order is completely different to start with.  
In fact, some people argue that Japanese language is a language isolate, whereas there are people counter argue that it belongs to the Altaic language family.

Chinese characters in Japanese language, on the other hand, were ‘imported’ in Heian period (794 till 12th century), and in terms of vocabulary and phonology,
it had a significant influence in Japanese language development.  
Those vocabulary was initially loan words (foreign words) like Katakana, one of the three kinds of major syllabary used in the language, which is usually used to transliterate foreign words. 

Thank you for reading through down here, we’ve managed to cover 5 out of 11 that I promised at the beginning.  
I will continue, next week, by starting with “Festivals & Events in Japan” – see you have a great week ahead, everyone!!


15 Things to Avoid – Gift Giving Etiquette in Japan [en]

What do you think about when you choose a gift for a friend?  Perhaps, something meaningful to them?  A gift for a Japanese colleague in the office?  What if you are choosing a gift for someone you have never met – you could be choosing something for your business partner in Japan before leaving for a meeting with them.  All of a sudden, you’re struck by a question – “I wonder if there are cultural differences in gift giving…?”

I list here 15 things that should be avoided as a gift in Japan.  Having said that, I am not trying to teach you or preach to you that you must do this or you will offend Japanese people’s feelings.  What’s most important is that it’s the thought that counts after all, so please relax and enjoy this introduction to Japanese culture.

I think, usually, people have a margin for foreign friends for making cultural errors.  I mean, people are more tolerant and understanding towards foreigners when it comes to ignorance of their customs, in general – “because they’re only visiting the country, they just can’t necessarily know these things.”

Vice versa, if you knew these things, the Japanese recipients would appreciate your consideration all the more, and it proves your respect towards the recipient’s culture.  It would almost promise the successful communication afterwards, wouldn’t it?

Knowing these 15 things to avoid can come in handy when you do come across such occasions, as you’ll know the answers already so nobody needs to panic – you’ll be ready to pick appropriate presents or enlighten people who need a piece of advice on this subject.

What you should NOT give as a gift.

Japanese custom and tradition are deeply seated in the influence of Shinto philosophy, whether they consciously acknowledge this or not.  Although I wrote down Japanese gift giving taboos, there are some that are similar to Chinese, simply because they are to do with the sound coming from Chinese characters.

For Celebrations – in general

1. Tea     Why? – It is not recommended to choose tea as a gift for most celebrations, because gift wrapped tea is often used as a return gift for funerals or wakes in Japan

2. Handkerchiefs     Why? – In Chinese characters, it writes手布 and is read “tegire”[such as ‘tay-ghee-ray’] and its homonym is 手切れ which means to sever a connection or relationship and it is easily and naturally associated with alimony or severance pay.  There was a scene in an old film in which I saw that a man (or woman? I can’t remember) hand a handkerchief to his girlfriend as a message of ‘goodbye’…!

3. Comb     Why? – Comb in Japanese is “Kushi,” and the sound of ‘ku’ is the same as 苦 (=suffering) and ‘shi’ is the same as 死 (=death), which is obviously not celebratory and it isn’t appropriate at all.  Also, combs and hairbrushes are for hair and a lot of people (especially women) may not feel comfortable sharing them with other people, as there is a superstitious reason that the owners bad luck will be passed on to the borrower.

4. Chrysanthemum     Why? – Chrysanthemum is commonly seen at funerals and there are many people who associate it with sad occasions.  That being said, there are Chrysanthemum Festivals which are popular, hence it is not always necessarily associated with funerals, so I would say it depends on how the recipient feels – personally I wouldn’t risk it.

5. Clock     Why? – Not so much in Japan, but more significant in China, a clock suggests a ‘time limit’ and you don’t want that when you wish for a long lasting relationship such as business partnership or friendship.

For Get-Well Gift

6. Potted Plants     Why? – pot plants are rooted, in Japanese they are ”netsuku” [as in ‘neh-tsu-koo’] and  in Chinese characters it is written as根付く, and its homonym 寝付く means “bed-ridden” – obviously you don’t want to give such a message to the person you hope recovers.

7. Camellia, Poppy or Cyclamen     Why? – A flower of Camellia drapes or drops, and it connotes a head dropping; poppy blossoms are easy to break and scatter which provokes a negative image of a person falling apart; for Cyclamen, it is called ‘shikuramen’ (シクラメン) in Japanese and the first syllable of ‘shi’ (シ=死) [as in ‘she’] – once again – is associated with ‘death’ and ‘ku’ (ク=苦) [as in ‘koo’] – once again – is associated with ‘suffering.’

8. Non-Consumable Gifts     Why? – As the person you are visiting recovers and recuperates, you hope and wish that their illness will have exhausted, and not remain in the body of the person.  Therefore it is believed to be good to select things that can be used up or eaten up itself whilst in hospital, such as soap, fruit, tea or coffee etc.

For Celebrating Wedding

9. Scissors or Knives     Why? – Scissors or knives signify cutting – for example, “cut the ties,” whereas matrimony or a wedding symbolises unity between two people and two families, so it is considered inappropriate to give a tool to cut as a gift for that occasion.

10. China/Stoneware     Why? – China, porcelain, stoneware, glassware… they connote ‘breaking.’  Therefore, it is not considered ideal to choose as a gift, like scissors and knives.  Quite obvious, when you come to think of it, isn’t it?

11. Mirror     Why? – Again, the reason is similar to china/stoneware – it ‘breaks’ and ‘cracks.’  However, I would like to add a detail reason which is specific to mirrors.  It is often associated with the spiritual world or the other side of the world, so some people associate mirrors with souls or spirits.  For example, it is considered unlucky to set a mirror facing your body in bed as if the mirror steals your soul from your body.

For Housewarming

12. Lighter or Ash Tray     Why? – Lighters and ash trays are considered inappropriate as a gift for new home because it is associated with ‘fire.’   Things that may convey the meaning of ‘fire,’ ‘smoke’ and ‘tip (lean)’ – negative connotations in this context.

For People in a Senior Position or Older than you

13. Shoes or Boots     Why? – Shoes or boots are for the feet and therefore they are associated with the idea of ‘stomping’ and giving such things as a gift may be construed as “I am stomping over you (soon),” which is not a good message to send your bosses…

14. Belt     Why? – Giving your boss or someone who is high up in the hierarchy a belt may be construed as a message from you meaning “hey boss, you need to tighten up (you look flabby).”

15. Pens     Why? – Pens are typically chosen as a gift from a teacher to their students or from someone senior to their junior in Japan, therefore, if you do that the other way around it could be considered rude or even condescending.

Numbers: Good and Bad

3, 5 and 7 are generally considered good numbers specially for wedding in Japan, at weddings, a congratulatory gift of money is usually given and giving even numbers is considered bad luck, as they can be easily ‘divided.’ So, for example 30,000 yen (approx. 200 pound) – i.e. three 10,000 yen notes (ideally new notes for a brand-new start) – for a single person and 50,000 (approx. 300 pound) yen – five 10,000 yen notes – for a couple that are invited are largely accepted.

8 – In Chinese character, eight is 八 and the shape signifies (top to bottom) success, prosperity or wealth, as things that start narrow gradually broaden.

4 and 9 – The number 4 can be read in two ways as ‘yon’ and ‘shi’ in Japanese.  Also the number 9 can be read in two ways as ‘kyu’ and ‘ku.’  And then, as I mentioned a couple of times before, in Japanese the syllable of ‘shi’ (し=死) – has the same phonetic sound as ‘death’ and ‘ku’ (く=苦) – is likewise the same sound as ‘suffering.’  These sounds convey quite a negative and unfortunate meaning.  Oddly enough, for this very reason, many hospitals avoid using these numbers for patients’ room numbers or floor numbers i.e. there would be room number 101,102 and 103, but after 103, there wouldn’t be 104 but the next number would be 105 instead.


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