Discovering cultural norms and taboos in Osaka, Japan

Photo by Ben Weinstein

By Ben Weinstein

What happens when a person is simultaneously overstimulated and robbed of the ability to respond to the stimuli verbally? This is the psychological experiment I imagined myself at the center of during my first month of studying abroad in Osaka, Japan. It is also one, I suspect, that is not uncommon to people who have recently arrived in places with a dominant language different from their native tongue. It is difficult to prepare oneself for living in such an environment — this is something I accepted in the weeks leading up to the trip. What I had not considered was that my need for self-expression would be higher than ever while living in such a drastically different place.

Even after a month of living in Osaka and feeling relatively settled in, my day-to-day life is still characterized by an almost-constant sensory overload. Part of this can be explained by the simple fact that nearly all of the sights, sounds, tastes and smells I experience are different from those I had grown accustomed to and taken for granted in the United States. Japan’s distinct architecture, the omnipresence of bikes and constantly entrancing smells emanating from within the sliding doors of local ramen and udon shops are just some examples of this. Things that no Japanese person would even register consciously are often mystifying or breathtaking to me.

It is for this reason that exploring Japan has been as easy as walking down a new street or taking the train to a randomly selected, unfamiliar station. Even neighborhoods that are more family-oriented, not offering as much in the way of stores or attractions, present countless things to be discovered. For example, some housemates and I recently decided to take the train to a nearby stop to find dinner. What could have been an hour round-trip turned into an unanticipated exploration of the Awaji neighborhood, not 10 minutes away from our sharehouse by train. We wandered through thin and dark alleys, occasionally punctuated by the warm glow of izakayas (Japanese pubs) and various restaurants. While we did end up satisfying our original purpose for the journey with plates of fried squid and hot sake, it was the type of night that proves the belabored car commercial credo right: It’s the journey, not the destination.

That being said, the destinations themselves are astounding. Trips with our program have taken us to lavish residences of Edo period village leaders, the visually stunning Shitennoji Temple (established roughly 1,400 years ago by Prince Shotoku) and several of Osaka and Kyoto’s most popular and vibrant neighborhoods. One of the most remarkable aspects of these places is that the old (temples, shrines) and new (restaurants, shopping malls) don’t feel nearly as isolated from one another as they might elsewhere. While exploring Kyoto on my own, for example, I was repeatedly surprised at finding gorgeous temple gates nestled in what is otherwise an extremely urbanized area. While this is a claim I am unqualified to make, sights such as these give the impression that Japan’s past and present are in frequent conversation.

Both at these destinations and in our sharehouse (occupied by four Americans, five Japanese and one Chinese student) more and more of Japan’s cultural customs and taboos are being constantly illuminated. The learning curve, however, is definitely a steep one. Practices of the Japanese residence such as never wearing shoes indoors, issuing customary greetings when returning home or going to bed and living in a generally cold house (brutally cold before I figured out how to work my heater) were tough to adjust to, but now feel like second nature after a mere month of experience. Just recently, however, while visiting a temple, I made the faux pas of standing in the presence of a monk with my hands in my pockets. I was quickly reprimanded for the offense, and reminded that there is still plenty to learn if I want to escape the image of a typically ignorant American.

At risk of sounding overly fatalistic, I do not see myself reaching that point anytime soon. In addition to larger, easily learnable aspects of Japanese culture, there are a plethora of subtleties that might take longer to absorb than the several months I have left in Osaka. Much of this is related to the language and its hugely essential levels of formality, but it also extends into things like physical mannerisms, culinary preferences and situational scenarios. That being said, I have been trying my best and will continue to do so as long as I am living here. It is already a thrill to see a Japanese person’s surprise at my being able to say anything other than arigato and konnichiwa.

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