Thursday, June 11, 2009

Final Thoughts on our 3 Year Excellent Adventure in Japan

The time has come to say Good Bye to Japan after 3 wonderful and crazy years living here. Even tough I knew our time in Japan was limited, I have to admit that leaving has been quite bittersweet. Like I told one of my friends who went back to the US last month, Japan has been the best and worst time of my life all rolled into one. It has been the worst because you can’t read, write or fully communicate with the people around you, so off course there where very stressful and frustrating times. On the other hand, it has been the best time because I had a chance to explore a new country and travel all around the world. In 3 years we went all over Japan, explored Europe, relaxed in the island of Bali, hanged out in Thailand and saw how 20 million people live in very close quarters in Shanghai, China. I think me dad expressed it best when he told me that I have seen more of the world in my 30 years that he has seen in his whole life!!! Since I am a glass half full kind of girl, I will concentrate on the good aspects of our experience in Japan.

I can summarize the various stages that I went through while living in Japan using the Japanese suffixes which I have grown accustomed to, these are:

Iddya-san -> San is an honorific ending for names that indicates acquaintance. The Japanese equivalent of Mr. or Mrs.. This suffix definitely expresses my first year or so in Japan. When I first arrived in Japan everything was new and I would spend my days exploring Hiroshima and coercing my friends into taking day trips to nearby towns. Every weekend we would get together with our friends, who where like us young married couples with no kids and hang out all over town. These where really good times, it was like being in College again but this time you could afford to buy a round of beers for everyone. This all changed once I began working as an Engineer in an all Japanese male office. On top of being the only female engineer there, everyone was 65 years + and spoke absolutely no English. The up side to this situation was that I learned allot of Japanese really fast!!! Out of total and complete necessity!!! Everyone there called me Iddya-san, mostly out of respect but also because I was an acquaintance, someone who they did not truly know. At the beginning this bothered me, but with time and as my language skills got better, they began to accept and trust me. Recently I meet one of my old friends who worked in the same division as me but in a different office and she asked me point blank “How in the world did you survive working in that office a year and a half?”. My answer was very simple “Sheer and utter will”. In retrospect this was an excellent experience for me because I learned how to navigate the Japanese business world and truly had the complete Salary man (Japanese white collar worker) experience.

Iddya-chan -> Chan is an honorific ending for names that mostly indicates someone who is extremely close or someone who is much younger. It is mostly a female ending, and rarely used for males. I used to be called Iddya-chan in my second job in Japan which was working for a German based automotive supplier. The best part of my second job was that it was only 5 blocks from my house, so I walked to and from work everyday. At my new office everyone was around the same age as me, half the office was composed of hard working women and everyone was required to speak English in order to work there. Needless to say, I found everything to be so easy that I had trouble adjusting in the beginning. You mean we can have an actual conversation out of the blue? I don’t have to plan ahead my 3 Japanese sentences and try to figure out what the response was or call a translator? Am I in Japan anymore? I fit in really well here since I was able to combine what I already knew about the automotive business worked with the correct way to act in the Japanese business world. I made really good friends at this job. The girls in the office really went the extra mile for me throughout my pregnancy by translating my tests results and even helping make appointments at the doctor. I was happy to be accepted and called Iddya-chan by me peers. Here we are the last that I worked:
Diego-kun – Kun is an honorific ending for names that mostly indicates friendship or someone younger. It is usually used for boys or male colleagues. The good thing about using -kun is that when people ask what is the baby’s name I always answer Diego-kun so they automatically know I have a boy. As you have already heard from everyone who recently had a child, having a kid changes everything. Since Diego was born in January, there was not much to do since it was cold out and the majority of the families completing an international assignment when home in December of 2008. To give you an idea, there where about 60 families at the beginning of 2008 and now there are only 11 left. This did not really bother me in the begging because you can’t really do much with a newborn anyway. I did not interact much with the outside world the first 3 months or so of Diego’s existence, which is pretty normal in any country. Once Diego was sturdier I did start going out and doing stuff with the friends that I had left. I quickly learned that it’s not the quantity that counts it’s the quality, since these gals where there for me every time I needed help with the baby or just needed a piece of mom-to-mom advice.
It’s kind of ironic that recently I have been meeting a lot of really nice people from other walks of life (besides the automotive business). I’ve met some young Japanese moms whose husbands are American and some nice Japanese ladies who wanted to learn Spanish, among others. It’s a pity that I just met them and I have to leave, but that’s life. I actually think it has been somewhat easier to take care of Diego in Japan because I just put him in the stroller and walk around downtown, no need to fiddle with a car seat or drive everywhere. The thing that has been the hardest is that our families are too far away and they have not met Diego yet, so in that aspect I’m glad we are going back to the US and both our families can be in Michigan within a day’s travel.

I really think I had a very FULL life experience in Japan. I went thru periods where I was at home, I worked and I had a baby – what else could I have possibly done? I learned how to navigate the immigration, health and work systems in Japan in a short period of time. The funny thing is I meet so many people in the process that I can barely keep track (Facebook is helping out with this) and some of those people have became life long friends.

Japan will always hold a special place in my heart, not only because my son was born here, but because it opened up my eyes to a whole new world (yes like the song). I sincerely encourage everyone to go out and see the world; it is smaller than it appears. Here is the latest picture of us in the Tokasan (summer kimono) Festival:
I do have one message that I would like to point out: If you or a family member ever have the chance to live abroad via an international assignment or a student exchange or simply by traveling, I would encourage you to go and see what happens. As you can see from this blog you WILL SURVIVE and grow as a person in the process. If someone where to ask me if I would do it all over again my answer is simple: ABSOLUTELY.

Reporting from Japan for the last time,

PS. I’m happy to report that some people have contacted me after finding my blog online about life in Hiroshima as a foreigner. I have been more than happy to answer all their questions and help them out, after all that was part of the reasons for writing this blog. If you are one of these people just leave a comment

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Raising a baby in Japan

As you can see from my previous post having a baby in Japan was full of “challenges” to say the least, but little did I know that the birth was the easy part!!! I have not written anything the last few months not because I have nothing to say, but because of absolute lack of time, the baby takes up every minute of the day!!! The 3 weeks my mother-in-law came to Japan to help me out where absolute heaven – news flash to anyone who is thinking of having a baby you need HELP!!! Now that I’m taking care of the baby full time, I try to rest any time I have “off” because guess what? I have to do the same thing all over again tomorrow!!! It’s like the movie Groundhog Day but in Japan. I am just trying to figuring out how to be a mom in the first place, in addition to surviving in a foreign country …how lucky am I? Let me count the ways:

1. Completely different health system – The other day I had an all out fight with the pediatrician (who barely speaks English so I have to go with my Japanese teacher in order for her to translate) because of the kid’s vaccines schedule. It turns out they are different from the US and the ones that are the same are given to the kids at a different frequency (it took me a good month of investigating to figure this out). I refused to give him a vaccine that is given in Japan every month since it’s given every 2 months in the US. The reason I did this was that one of my girlfriends who lives in Japan had her kid vaccinated the Japanese way and then had to re-vaccinate the kid again in the US because of the incompatibility of the frequency the doses are administered. Fighting with the doctor was supper hard because I could tell the translation was very “soft”, in other words my Japanese teacher was trying to “keep it polite” and I was all out loosing a casket. The doctor kept insisting that since I’m living in Japan I have to follow their rules and finally I just told him I was going to follow the American system PERIOD. I’m certain the doctor thinks I was super rude and I’m sure he secretly roles his eyes back every time I walk in the door but seriously why would you put more vaccines into a child if it’s not necessary? I put my foot firmly down and that was the end if the discussion.

2. Who do you call when you have a mommy question? – For a normal person this would be easy just pick up the phone and call your mom, family member or friend. In my case I can only talk to the internet or look it up in the index of my Baby 411 book, since everyone who has a clue as to what is going on with the baby is currently sleeping on the other side of the world. Luckily I have a few fellow mom friends here who have been my angels the past few months. They had recommended doctors and given me lots of advice. I have definitely learned that being a mom is 100% universal.

3. Medicine – If I need medicine for the flu or something and I don’t have it I simply suck it up until it goes away, but what am I supposed to do if the baby needs something? Unfortunately I have to call home and wait for someone to send it to me 1 week later…yey. This is true for all baby products. When the baby was born he had diaper rash and we tried to go to Babies R Us at the local mall to find some type of cream, but guess what? It was a total bust, because there are lots of different kanji kanji kanji brands to choose from and you can’t read any of the labels, what if your kid was allergic to a specific chemical? You basically have no idea what your given and/or applying on your newborn child. Therefore we just had my father-in-law bring as many Johnson and Johnson baby products as he could fit into his luggage when he came to Japan. I’m hoping I won’t run out of baby products before we go back to Michigan in June.

4. Curiosity factor – It turns out that the Japanese people are very curious to see what a non Japanese baby looks like. I’m used to people staring at me basically because I’m tall (5 foot 6 inches) and have curly hair but my kid is another thing. They always stare at the baby while I’m walking with the stroller around downtown Hiroshima and even stop me in the middle of crossing the street just to take a look at him!!! People there is a street car coming, don’t you think we could get out of the way first and then stare at the child on the sidewalk? I got so fed up with the whole thing that I placed a blanket (not as bad as Micheal Jackson’s son nicknamed blanket) on the stroller in order to cover the kid up while walking.
Now you see him:

Now you don't:

Well, guess what it worked but it does not stop people from getting in the middle of my way and trying to take a peek at the baby through the sides!!! If a Japanese person wants to see a non Japanese child then they should look it up on the Internet or simply look at all the American Stores’ advertisements (Gap, Banana Republic etc) which all have blond, blue eyed people posing their clothes!!!

These are just some of the things I have been dealing with while trying to raise a baby in Japan. On the other hand I’m sure I will be laughing about it some day when I’m describing to Diego the place where he was born.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Giving birth in Japan

My first child was born on January 3rd, 2009 in Hiroshima, Japan. I decided to write this very simple statement down because it is something that will be with me for the rest of my life. It seems surreal that 2 people arrived in Japan in 2006 and now 3 people will be returning to the US in 2009. I still can’t believe we made it, considering all the obstacles we have surpassed throughout my pregnancy.
As you already know this is our first child so we had no idea what to expect and had to get used to the Japanese way of healthcare without having full grasp of the language. Luckily we did find one doctor who “semi-spoke English” and could get his point across well. I also had a very normal, worry free pregnancy so I think that made things less stressful. I can truly say that the healthcare I received was definitely 5 out of 5 stars. The doctor was very thorough, explained to us what was happening to the baby as the pregnancy progress and answered all our questions. I did have my pet peeves off course, mainly having to go to way too many check ups and that the births are 100% natural, meaning that no drugs are used to ease the labor pains. This is not a typo, I endured all the contractions, pains and discomforts associated with giving birth without one drop of pain reliever, not even a Tylenol!!! Believe me I tried to get any drugs available. I had previously “discussed” with the doctor the use of an epidural and explained that in America this was a very widely used drug to reduce labor pains and no matter what argument I used the answer was always no. Note to self: The next baby will be born in the US or in a country where epidurals are commonly used.
The actual labor itself is quite a story. My water broke around 6 am on January 2nd but I had no pain whatsoever. We decided to go to the hospital as a precaution. The first thing you have to do is call the hospital and tell them you are on your way. I proceeded to call the hospital and read my super birth script in Japanese – “It looks like I am going to give birth soon. I will go to the hospital now”. I recited my very specific 2 sentences in Japanese and the nurse started asking all these questions which obviously I did not understand (sorry there is no going into labor chapter in my Japanese for Busy People book). I proceeded to simply say “I’m going to the hospital now”, little did I know this was a precursor for a very long day of “lady I have no idea what your saying but this kid is coming out one way or the other”. I arrived at the hospital and after checking me the nurse basically stated the obvious; your starting labor but it will take a long time. I spent the rest of the day just waiting for the contractions to begin hanging out in my hospital room with Orlando and my Japanese teacher who came to help out.
At 8 pm a nurse came and told me to get a good night sleep because the baby was probably going to come tomorrow morning. As a result, my Japanese teacher went home and we went to sleep.
At around 11 pm I really started to feel hard and constant contractions and we called the nurse, who had no idea what to do with me since we could not understand each other. The nurse actually called my Japanese teacher and told her to come to the hospital. The problem was that it was already too late, the trains close from midnight until 6 am and my teacher lives half an hour away, so there we where just Orlando, the nurse, myself and the unbelievable pain trying to communicate. In reality there is not much a translator could have done in this type of situation – everyone understands the universal AHHHHHH. I defended myself in Japanese the best way I could using the words itai (it hurts), totemo (allot), ima (now) and isha (doctor). You can actually combine these to make such beautiful sentences like totemo itai (it hurt allot), ima itai (now it hurts) and the always useful ima isha (doctor now). You too can have a child in a foreign country with a grand total of 4 vocabulary words, I am living proof!!!
Once the contractions where a few minutes apart I got transferred downstairs to what I call the “pain room”. The idea is to go into this room and “deal with your pain” until your ready to start pushing the baby out. I can sincerely say that a SAW trap would have been less painful than experiencing labor pains, but around 3 am on January 3rd I was finally a mom. The funny thing was that right after the birth one of the nurses left the room, got a camera and actually started taking pictures of the doctor with the baby, the baby with Orlando, the baby with the nurses and I’m just lying there thinking “Umm hello I’m still here”. So there you have it, taking pictures every 3 minutes is normal in Japan even if you’re in a delivery room completely exhausted and looking like you just survived a boxing match with Mike Tyson in his prime.
I spent a whole week in the hospital after Diego’s birth. I really did not need to be in the hospital all this time since I felt pretty good under the circumstances by the third day but that is the Japanese way. In hindsight this is a good way for the mom to learn how to take care of her new child and rest up a little before going home. Everyone in the hospital went out of their way to make us feel comfortable. The nurses explained things to me in very basic Japanese and demonstrated how to do things (bath the baby, feed the baby, change a diaper etc) very thoroughly. I never thought I would have to learn the words and kanji for pee, poop, diaper, bottle and so on in Japanese but there I was feeding the baby with all the other Japanese mothers who where going threw exactly the same thing. Even tough everything I have just written sounds crazy, I would go threw it again in a heartbeat because the feelings a parent has for his or her child does not need any translating.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

How to identify your child…Japanese style

This week we visited our Brazilian friend who just gave birth at the hospital/resort. I was very pleased to finally see the facilities, since I will be giving birth in the same place. Everything looked good and at it’s usual 5 star rating. There was only one thing that caught my attention, the way they identified the babies in the nursery. In the west, babies are given a small wrist band to wear with the mother’s name. The other day my sister was telling me that some hospitals actually put electronic bracelets on the babies that would trigger an alarm if the baby is taken too far outside the hospital premises. This all sounds good and normal right? Well please refer to the way it’s done in Japan in the picture below:
Do not adjust your monitor; yes you are seeing correctly the kid has kanji written on her leg!!! Welcome to the world kid let me introduce you to my friend Mr. Sharpie…this won’t hurt a bit!!! Since my friends are from Brazil (hence they have no kanji characters in their names) their baby was identified with katakana (one of the simplest Japanese scripts that use syllables to make a word). How hilarious!!! It’s not like you can’t tell which kid has foreign parents in the first place!!! The big one!!! All the babies where around 5 to 6 pounds but the Brazilian baby was almost 9 pounds!!!
So I went on my usual investigative rampage - all I was missing was a little note pad and pen – and started asking around if this is a normal practice in Japan. Guess what? …wait for it…think about it…off course its normal, it’s Japan!!! The only thing that varies is where the name is written, my teacher told me her nieces and nephews had their last name written on the sole of their tiny feet. I guess this hospital considered that there was not enough space there and just used the whole lower leg as a kanji canvas.

Apparently a few years back there was a big controversy about kids being mixed up in the hospital and given to the wrong parents. As always there had to be extreme measures taken in order to ensure that it did not happen again. So why don’t we…….write the parents last name on the baby minutes after birth? That sounds like a great idea!!! Let’s implement it immediately even though it might cause some issues like:
1. The ink wearing off after the bay is bathed.
2. Not taking into consideration any weird toxins that the magic marker might have, especially if it’s made in China.
3. Ignoring the fact that the baby might get some type of skin rash due to the ink.
Just write on the baby with a marker bought at the 100 yen shop (1 USD) and he or she will be fine. Once again I love this country. Japan is so quirky all the time that it never let’s me down.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Procedures Related to Baby Birth in Japan

As everything in Japan there is an actual procedure for EVERYTHING and having a child is no exception. This week I went to renew my work visa, which I have to do every year since I came to Japan with a dependent visa (I call it the luggage visa, basically you have the right to eat and breath and that's all) and the nice lady that went with me said "Iddya -san you are pregnant, I will send you the procedure to follow via e-mail". True to her word she sent me the procedure and I found it A) hilarious that an actual procedure exists but not surprised at all since everything here has to be by the book, there is no cutting corners of any kind in any activity and B) overwhelmed by all the stuff you have to do!!! So I decided to share this interesting baby procedure, maybe some one will need it in the future or you can just see how different countries handle foreigner's births which reads as follows:

Procedures Related to Baby Birth
A. [After becoming pregnant]
1. Obtain a "Mother and Child Health Hand Book" at the Public Health Center
*The expectant mother should obtain a ""Mother and Child Health Handbook"" at a public health center by filling out a Notification of Pregnancy Form. The purpose of the handbook is to record the progress of the pregnancy, the medical condition of the baby after birth, and the vaccination information. An English version of this handbook is available.

B. [After having a baby]
1. "Within 14 days after birth" Birth Registration at the Ward Office
* You will need: Birth Certificate (Issued by the hospital) and Mother and Child Health Handbook.

2. "Within 60 days after birth" Alien Registration at the Ward Office
Fill out an application. This is available at the ward office.
* You should obtain: Baby's Alien Registration Certificate, Official copies of the Birth Certificate (You need 2 copies) @ 350 yen, Certified copy of Alien Registration (family information) @300 yen

3. "Within 30 days after birth" Status of Residence Certificate at the Immigration Office
*Fill out an application and questionnaire (for parents). These are available at the immigration office.
* You will need: An official copy of the Birth Certificate, Certified copy of Alien Registration (family information), Passports of the parents (and the baby if obtained) and the Mother and Child Health Handbook

C. [After finishing the Birth Registration]
*Obtain a passport for the new baby at the Consulate or Embassy
* You will need: An official copy of the Birth Certificate

D. [After obtaining a passport for the new baby]
1. Transfer of Endorsement - This procedure will transfer the baby's status of residence into the baby's passport at the Immigration Office
*Fill out a petition. This is available at the immigration office.
* You will need: Baby's passport, Baby's Alien Registration Certificate,

2. Re-entry Permit (multiple) at the Immigration Office
*Fill out an application form and Embarkation card. These are available at the immigration office.
* You will need: Baby's passport, Baby's Alien Registration Certificate. A revenue stamp @6000 yen.

3. Update the baby's Alien Registration Certificate at the Ward Office (with new status of residence, passport number, etc.)
* You will need: Baby's passport Baby's Alien Registration Certificate"


After all this stuff you can finally call your child "legal" in Japan. What a pain!!! Notice that all this stuff has to be done within 2 months of the baby's birth!!! I did not have a passport until I was like 15 years old!!!! I didn't actually use my passport until I was in college and actually got a cute stamp on it. My child will have a passport almost simultaneously as being able to distinguish colors and he's going to have a stamp (or various I don't know) before he is 1 year old. This is crazy, how times have changed. What ever happened to simply getting a birth certificate and a social security number? As always, nothing is simple in Japan.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Expecting in Japan

People say a picture is worth 1,000 words and well now I believe it completely. As you can clearly see by this 3D sonogram I'm 5 moths pregnant. There I finally said it (in this case wrote it). Now it's completely out there and no one has to wonder why did I suddenly gain weight in only one spot in my Facebook pictures? The mystery is officially solved.

Being pregnant in another country has been quite interesting to say the least. Luckily I have been feeling well and have had no issues with the pregnancy so far (knock on wood) which is quite positive since there is only one hospital with a semi English speaking doctor around our house. The doctor speaks a little English and as long as he keeps saying "genki" - which is healthy in Japanese - I'm happy. Every month we go over to the hospital/5 star hotel (very posh place people) get a sonogram and wait for the word "genki", it's as simple as that. I'm not really sure why I have to get a sonogram every visit but "when in Rome do as the Romans". I have to accept that it's kind of cool to see exactly what is going on inside my belly and I have been pleasantly surprised to see how much this kid moves (a sign of things to come). Everyone at the hospital is super nice and cordial even though I don't know what their saying. Here is a scan of the hospital's brochure so you have an idea what I'm talking about.

I have received many questions from the people that I have already told about my pregnancy and I'm sure allot of people have the same questions so I will address some of these issues independently.

1. Citizenship - The kid will be an American citizen, after he (yes it's a boy and I am not publishing that sonogram picture for obvious reasons) is born we have 30 days to take the baby to the American embassy in Osaka (2 hours by train) and get a social security number and a passport. Even if your born in Japan that does not mean you are a Japanese citizen. You can only be Japanese by blood (mom or dad are Japanese). There are actually lots of court cases in Japan right now because of that. Imagine being born and raised in a place and then told your not a citizen because your parents are from another country!!! The only thing that we can keep is the babies birth certificate as a souvenir after that he will have a tiny little passport and alien registration card just like all the foreigners in Japan. Interesting.
2. Where is the baby going to be born? I'm having the baby in Japan. The health care here is really good, the government cover 70% of all your expenses. I actually had to go down to the Hiroshima city hall and register that I'm having a baby. I thought this was strange but actually they give you a mother's book where the doctor record your progress during the pregnancy and coupons. I did not know exactly what these coupons where for, free diapers? free massage? no idea since I can't read. I soon found out the coupons are actually to cover your check ups when you go to the doctor. The last check up I went to I had a sonogram and a blood test and only pad about $35 USD. Go Japan that's all I have to say.
3. Is someone going to help you out after the baby is born in January? Yes, Orlando's parents are going to come and help out in January. I don't have a final plan yet until my due date is more fixed, up to now it's January 15, 2009 but it could vary 2 weeks before or after so it's tricky.
4. Maternity clothes - What do you do when all the women around are 5 feet tall and weigh 90 pounds max? well you order clothes from the US because guess what, NOTHING FITS!!!!!!!! So I gave a huge donation to Gap maternity and had my very nice mother in law send it to Japan (another huge donation for duty taxes upon delivery). I have to wear something!!!! even if it's a waste to pay so much for something your going to use only a few months. "Shoganai" - there is nothing I can do - in Japanese. For the record, maternity clothes suck no matter which country you buy them from.
5. Cravings - How do you deal with craving if your live half way around the world from your home country? You have very nice people that send you things. I've only really had 2 craving Froot Loops and plantains. My parents actually send me plantains all the way from Puerto Rico and I'm happy to report they made it in one piece. I recently figured out how to order plantains from a Philippines online store here in Japan and I paid $30 USD for a batch and I don't care, it was a matter of life or death. I also had a box of Fruit Loops send to me from a very good friend in Michigan. I have not figured out where to get these, since cereal (especially sugary ones) are not popular in Japan, but where there is a will there is a way.

Last but not least I just wanted to thank everybody for their good wishes and gifts. I am very grateful to have such good friends and family that ship me books, Froot Loops, Plantains and all sorts of baby gifts to Japan. Orlando and I joke around that we have never received so many boxes consecutively in the whole 2 years we have been here. The good thing about being in Japan is that there is no storage space, so people have to get rid of their stuff quickly, that's where we come in. So far many of the our foreign friends here in Hiroshima have given us their baby furniture and contraptions that they are not going to use anymore. I have no idea how to use or put together some of the stuff we already got, but I guess I'll figure it out 4 months from now.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Two Years living in Japan

On July 14th, 2008 Orlando and I have been living in Japan two full years. I felt the uncontrollable urge to actually write this down because I could not believe it myself. As a result I needed to keep some type of record that confirms that “Yes this is not a dream”. This is my way of remembering that we lived trough it and have flourished personally as a result.
In general our lives in Japan are pretty normal (hence why I have not written in this blog for a while). Our jobs and surrounding are different but we are the same wacky kids at the core. We are already used to all the bright lights with kanji symbols and nothing really shocks us anymore. Oh look another wacky “Engrish” sign that has horrible spelling or simply can’t be understood. At first I would laugh until I dropped but now I simply appreciate the fact that they tried to translate the information into English in the first place!!! Oh look another temple or shrine – wooooopy duuu. I definitely think our acceptance of weird things has increased greatly in the last few years to the point that we just ignore the girls dressed in full doll costume walking along the streets.
The one aspect that has changed in our two years here is our understanding of the Japanese people. Simply interacting with them on a daily basis gives you a glimpse into the real Japanese culture. I have come to realize that even though a person speaks English that does not mean that they truly understand your weird western ways (or any of my “unique” humor while we are on that subject). In essence the person is talking to you in English but their behavior and complete thought process is 100% Japanese. The only exception to this rule is if someone had lived in a western country for a few years and had integrated themselves culturally in the process. I have only met a hand full of people who meet this requirement. The majority of the people learn English in special language schools after work and the most fluent ones have gone on some type of exchange (6 months to a year) in an English speaking country at some point in their lives.
As a result of this phenomenon, I have learned to read behind the English words being spoken and look for the true Japanese meaning behind it. A perfect example of this is the use of the word yes (“hai” in Japanese). Once you explain a situation and the next steps that need to be taken to solve an issue the probability of obtaining a “hai” at the end from your Japanese colleague is 100%. The trick is to see that this “hai” does not mean that “yes I will take the actions you suggested” it really means that “yes I heard your concern”. After the situation is “heard” it needs to be discussed in extreme details with everyone and their bosses and their respective superiors until everyone agrees on the correct course of action to take. This is done (after way too many meetings) in order to make sure that there is a group consensus and that the action does not affect any individual or group negatively, therefore my patience level has increased 1000% since living in Japan. According to Wikipedia:

“There is a prescribed and orderly feel to the Japanese cultural and social norms. The goal of the Japanese system is the establishment and maintenance of “wa”, or harmony. On the surface, this aspiration for harmony is respectable, but it is also possible that the pursuit of harmony may cause problems as well. The result of such a uniform viewpoint can lead to the stigmatization of even slightest deviance. ”

At first it was frustrating, now it is just the way things are. I think it took me a while to really understand the “rules of the game” but once you do, everything goes allot smoother.

Another aspect of “the game” that I have been working on understanding lately is how to distinguish between the Japanese’s “honne" and “tatemae”. According to good old trusty Wikipedia:

Honne (本音) refers to a person's true feelings and desires. These may be contrary to what is expected by society or what is required according to one's position and circumstances, and they are often kept hidden, except with one's closest friends.
Tatemae (建前), literally "façade," is the behavior and opinions one displays in public. Tatemae is what is expected by society and required according to one's position and circumstances and these may or may not match one's honne.
Honne and tatemae are arguably a cultural necessity resulting from a large number of people living in a comparatively small island nation. For this reason, the Japanese tend to go to great lengths to avoid conflict, especially within the context of large groups.”

Being able to tell if a person is telling you what they really think or what they perceive you want to hear in order to avoid conflict is extremely tricky. In essence if you have established a relationship of trust with an individual they will tell you their honne, in private. If there are other people present (especially if the other person is the most senior in the group) the situation completely changes, everyone suddenly begging acting super formal and really quiet. Even the language changes!!! In Japanese there are 3 different verbs for almost EVERYTHING!!! It all depends if the person you’re talking to is you junior, equal or senior. But the kicker is they all mean the same thing!!! That is an easy way of telling that everyone has their tatemae on. In other less formal situations you have to simply rely on your instincts to know which side of the person you’re dealing with at that moment, it’s hard but not impossible.
You might be thinking that is must be hard to figure these things out but if you ask usually you will get an honest answer out of a good friend. Off course if your in Japan make sure you ask in the right environment (basically anywhere outside of the office). Every culture is unique in their own way, and I’m sure there are allot more social aspects of Japan that we have not experienced, but fortunately we still have another year to figure them out.

If you want to see people who have REALLY emerged themselves in the Japanese culture check out this article: