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A display of people’s names at a temple in Nara

 

 

I feel I need to write a few words about Japanese people’s obsession with doing things perfectly and constantly aiming to achieve the most functional and aesthetically pleasing end result. This might be partly due to peer pressure where by doing things the ‘wrong’ way will result in you becoming a social outcast. I always thought that the Finns were the most prescriptive nation, that they seemed only too happy to comply with strict rules and regulations to the best of their abilities.  However, after having lived in Japan for 2 ½ years the Finns are starting to look as rule abiding as a litter of 8-week old Boxer puppies.

I could probably name a hundred examples that demonstrate Japanese people’s attention to detail but instead of a hundred, I’ve listed 8 examples below.

 

1. Children’s indoor playgrounds are immaculate in Japan. You see the staff go around the area with lint rollers getting rid of specks of dirt/dust every 20-30 minutes. This contrasts with the indoor play areas in our hometown in England that have not even seen a hoover in decades. I suppose a lint roller would not be an effective tool to get rid of the build up of dust in English indoor play areas. A spade would.

 

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2. Those same lint rollers are frequently used on hairdressers’ floors and doormats to get rid of (particles of) hair that might have fallen on the floor during hair treatment. It seems that managers of Japanese hair salons would not tolerate a single hair anywhere other than on the customers’ (and staffs’) heads.

 

3. Many companies specify that you need to write your job application by hand. This is of course an extremely laborious task as no errors, crossing out or erasing are allowed. That is, every time you make a mistake, you need to start again. I’m guessing the reason for this (in addition to it being a historical convention that the slow changing Japanese society is reluctant in abandoning) is that it shows commitment to the job applied for but also demonstrates that you have an eye for detail and can obey rules regardless of how inefficient they sound, such rules being the cornerstones of the Japanese workplace.

 

4. Every Japanese person carries with them a hand towel (and a face towel during the scorching summer months to wipe off the rivers of sweat that cascade down their faces). They’ve learned this obligatory practice at school and take it as God’s word. My Japanese friends’ towels get ironed after washing and are folded nicely back into their original origami-like state every time they are used. My crumpled towel on the other hand goes straight from the washing machine into the bottom of my handbag and gets chucked back in the bag after use. See photo below of examples of hand towels in a shop, for some reason my friends’ hand towels continue to look like this i.e. brand new, whereas mine looks like road kill.

 

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Road kill

 

5. Similarly to towels, Japanese people fold their umbrellas. Numerous times I’ve sat on the train or arrived at work to observe in a kind of trance the preciseness of how a Japanese person spends two or three minutes carefully folding each individual strip of fabric (and the underlying metal bit) into a neat, immaculate, and crease-free umbrella.

 

6. Everything in Japan has a place and those places are carefully considered for function and aesthetics (this is the case with everything other than public rubbish bins, which do not seem to be part of Japanese councils’ agenda). But for example sweets and food are pretty much always carefully arranged into their boxes (see photos below).

 

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Osechi, New Year’s Eve’s ‘bento boxes’

 

7. We recently let our apartment go in Osaka (as the children moved back to England) and I’ve moved into a flat share. As I was moving from a 3-bed apartment to a single room, we needed to get rid of most of our furniture. In Japan, you can’t do the British classic: dump your unwanted furniture/household items outside your building and wait for a neighbour/passer-by to walk off with it. I suppose (a) unwanted furniture would make the street look messy (something that the Brits are not all that particular about, but the Japanese would view with similar surprise as an English person noticing that some passer by or neighbour, had walked off not only with their unwanted sofa but also the very much wanted front path cast iron gate). Also, (b) having someone else’s old furniture in your home doesn’t seem to be a popular choice in Japan, partly because the Japanese seem to be too infatuated with consumerism to consider buying something second-hand. (see photos below of some dumped items that I noticed on my way to the pub in Brighton, UK the other day).

 

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Second hand mug, tray and bottle of olive oil up for grabs.

 

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This photo was taken in September. I’m guessing this item of Scandinavian Christmas decoration had been standing there since January.

 

As dumping our furniture on the street was not an option, a friend arranged a local recycle shop to come and collect our furniture. When the recycle company arrived the day before we were due to move out to collect the furniture I got a bad feeling as soon as I opened my door to this extremely grumpy guy with only half of his teeth left in his mouth. Toothless walked into the bathroom to have a look at our washing machine, opened the washing machine’s detergent compartment, found some residual washing power in it and started shaking his head. It seems that even though the guy had a somewhat more lax approach to dental hygiene he was extremely particular about washing machine detergent residual. In any case, there I am standing in the bathroom thinking: Wait until you see the fade line of orange marker on the armrest of our grey arm chair, or the fabric of the sofa on the sunny side of the living room where the Japanese sun (comparable to the Star Wars’ Death Star in its incinerating power) had slightly bleached/faded the fabric. As predicted, Toothless tells us that he doesn’t want any of our furniture (even though we were giving it away for free) – apparently he would struggle to find anyone who would buy our damaged stuff.

 

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Our unsellable armchair

 

8. In Japan (and actually also in Finland) people do not wear shoes inside their homes (or other places they hold should be clean, like primary schools). Wearing shoes indoors is seen unhygienic and thus walking indoors with outdoor shoes on is not an option even if removing your shoes was inconvenient. If, having put your shoes on in the porch, you realize that you’ve left your mobile phone in the kitchen you are expected to (a) remove your shoes and get the phone (b) remove one shoe and hop to the kitchen to get the phone (c) leave both shoes on but get on your all fours and crawl to the kitchen on your knees, (d) leave the phone where it is but be miserable about it all day.

 

I kind of like the order and attention to detail in Japan. After all, I am Finnish. Bearing that in mind, you might wonder why I choose to live in England where order and attention to detail is restricted to the queue formation at the bus stop. -Well, the reason probably is that the rebel in me deep down loves England’s overall disorder, occasional chaos and widespread messiness.

9 thoughts on “The most pedantic nation

  1. Oh, dear. What did you end up doing with the furniture? This wastefulness is gross. But then again, so is wearing outdoor shoes inside. OBJECTIVELY GROSS (to a German). Since moving to the US I learned that Germans double-dip (e.g. dipping a cracker into dip, then biting half off and dipping again), which freaks out Americans (because GERMS!!!), but Americans feel totally comfortable putting their filthy shoes on my sofa, or worse, walk all over my 2-month-old’s blanket on the floor. I much prefer human germs to germs from street filth and poop. But wastefulness is even worse.

  2. A great read, which gave me quite a bit of insight! Maybe what we like about Britain is the flexibility: we can be precise ourselves if we want and it’s okay but if for whatever reason we want to be more relaxed about things (which I increasingly seem to be!) it’s perfectly fine as well. There are so many different kinds of people that it’s impossible to have just one way to do anything. 🙂

    • Yeah, I think that’s it: flexibility, and the lovely subsequent state when we don’t always have to worry that we are doing something ‘wrong’, because often there is no clear right or wrong in England.

  3. This was great! I was laughing out loud…we used to live in the German part of Switzerland, and now, as of two weeks ago, have moved to Osaka. The obsession here with Ordnung, trash and recycling etc, remind me of our time in Switzerland (yes, I have been scarred by having our trash returned to our front door after we unknowingly violated the sacred trash rules. Also I have been chastised for leaving microscopic bits of soap residue in the soap drawer of the communal washing machine…so moving here makes me feel right at home!) Too bad we didn’t move here just a bit earlier, as I would have happily bought used furniture/appliances. I have been wondering about the consumerism; there are so many stores here, all packed to the gills with a huge range of products of all kinds–are people shopping all the time and constantly throwing “old” things away to make room for the new? In case you are interested, here is a short post about my first impression upon moving here: expatosaka.wordpress.com

    • Welcome to Osaka! Hope you’ve enjoyed your first couple of weeks in Japan. How long are you planning to stay for? Are you in Osaka for work?

      Another reader who lives in Switzerland commented this blog post on my facebook page and said pretty much the same thing as you, and also mentioned something about excessive cleanliness at gyms, hiking trails etc. I gather Switzerland is Europe’s Japan 🙂

      Yeah, consumerism in Japan is crazy. They love shopping and to acquire new things. This is not only a problem with furniture/appliances, but also with pets. Because practically nobody wants to get a cat/dog that is nolonger ‘new’ i.e. a kitten/puppy, an unacceptable number of healthy, slightly older, animals gets put down in Japan every week. Breaks my heart.

      • As I’ve understood it, vets don’t usually put (healthy) pets down. Instead, unwanted pets are put in individual compartments at the back of a truck and they are gassed while the truck drives around the city (to avoid a particular part of the city being associated with dying animals). Annually, hundreds of thousands of animals (e.g., in 2010, approx. 300 000) end up in these ‘death trucks’.

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