The most pedantic nation

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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.

National superiority and inferiority complexes

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Having lived in England and Japan for many years has made me, a native to Finland, realize that maybe some nationalities have unrealistically high expectations on foreigners’ knowledge of their nation.

It seems that some nationalities assume that their country is so influential and/or important that even though they themselves don’t necessarily excel in cross-cultural knowledge, or even in global geography, they expect non-natives to know intricate details about their country/people/culture.

For example, I asked my students the other day what they thought a typical French person knows about Japan, and in addition to a long list of specific cultural references like umeboshi (Japanese pickled plums), shabu shabu (a type of Japanese soup), Kyudo (Japanese archery) and an inventory of Japanese comedians and fashion designers my female students confidently stated that the French know that Japanese women are the most beautiful women in the world.

The above are all Japanese references but I would say that they are all rather unfamiliar to a typical European with no specific interest in Japan. And yes, Japanese women are beautiful, but I doubt the French have a similar association with the Japanese women as Japanese (women) do.

It’s not only the Japanese who have somewhat unrealistic expectations of non-natives’ knowledge of their country/people. I’ve noticed the same with many British people. For instance, I remember one New Year’s Eve when my 10 British friends and I crammed into a small cottage in Wales for 24 hours. The ‘entertainment’ for the entire 24 hours was board games and music quizzes relevant to England. I have nothing against board games and quizzes, in fact I’m a big fan, but since I am also quite competitive, I don’t really like playing a game when I have an obvious handicap.

You see, the Trivial Pursuit that we were playing was the UK edition and thus the questions heavily focused on general knowledge that British people have, which of course is different from, say, a Finnish or a Japanese person’s general knowledge or what it can be expected to be. If you want to feel intellectually comparable to Chris Griffin from Family Guy try playing Trivial Pursuit in a country where you didn’t do your compulsory education. After all, the miners’ strike in the 1980s was big news in England, but it had very little effect on a primary school child’s life in Finland. And Fanny Craddock may have been a pioneer in abolishing Britain’s traditional deep-fat-fryer-heavy cuisine, but many Finns would struggle to know what a deep-fat-fryer is let alone be familiar with Fanny. And by the same token, when a Trivial Pursuit question is, ‘What was the name of Captain Cook’s vessel?’. A Finn is like: ‘Huh? Do they mean Captain Hook from Peter Pan?’

In addition to Trivial Pursuit, that New Year’s Eve the host had created his own music quiz, which consisted of old British songs that were popular in the UK before I moved there, and whose popularity was largely restricted to the UK (or at least those songs or artists never made it all the way to Finland). When I handed my empty music quiz answer sheet to the next person for scoring, they looked at me confused and said: ‘You were supposed to write the answers here.’ And when I said: ‘I know’ they looked even more confused.

The point with the above New Year’s Eve story and actually many other similar stories is that my British friends assume that I would have comparable general and popular culture knowledge of England as they themselves do, regardless of the fact that I am not English.

Don’t get me wrong, I agree that some countries have been at the centre of important historical/scientific/political events and innovations which people should know about, but these events being part of general knowledge surely shouldn’t create an expectation that non-natives know everything about that country.

In contrast to natives of some big and important countries, some nationalities have little expectations of foreigners’ knowledge about their countries. For instance, Finland’s remote location, political insignificance and a petty five million inhabitants seem to have created such an inferiority complex that us Finns are over the moon if a foreigner can name anything about Finland – even if it is their son’s miserable rodent called Kimi Räikkönen. But generally speaking us Finns assume that most foreign people don’t know Kimi Räikkönen and aren’t aware that the heart rate monitor, Abloy locks, the Sauna, Ice Skates, Nokia phones, the Linux operating system, Angry Birds and a Molotov cocktail (a bottle bomb) are Finnish inventions.

But recently I’ve noticed that people do know something about Finland. They do!

Maybe it’s thanks to a recent BBC news story and the subsequent huge social media coverage about baby boxes that the Finnish government gives to all newborns in Finland. Consequently, many English people now associate Finland with amazing social welfare and cardboard boxes functioning as Moses baskets (in a positive way).

And us having lived in Japan for two years has made me realize that Finland is not a country that nobody knows anything about. You see, many Japanese people seem to love Finland and they know an awful lot about it. When I tell some random Japanese people whom I meet in sake bars, kids’ playgrounds or doctors’ consulting rooms that I am from Finland many of they exclaim: Moomins, Marimekko, Iittala, northern lights, and/or Santa Claus (typical Finnish references). And some of them who’ve seen/heard my name before I have had a chance to talk to them (e.g. doctors or colleagues at work) say that they immediately knew I was Finnish because of my surname. And pretty much all of them ask me detailed questions about the renowned education system of Finland.

So, maybe Finnish people need to stop having an inferiority complex and follow British and Japanese people’s example. Finland is known for its nature, design, education and social welfare – qualities that, in my opinion, are worth having a superiority complex about.

Shop assistants who should be lighthouse keepers

 

 

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It’s 10am on a Sunday morning and the shops are about to open in Osaka. I stand outside a department store to get a cake from the cake counter for my son’s birthday party that will start in two hours. I don’t usually leave important things like birthday cakes to the last minute, but this time I had no choice. See, the kids and I went to buy the cake the day before but when the shop assistant heard that the cake was not going to be eaten on the same day she politely, with an apologetic smile on her face, refused to sell us the cake. It turns out Japanese people are obsessed with fresh food, and I guess the shop assistant thought that me serving a cake that was made the day before at a kids’ birthday party was comparable to me serving a pint of lager that was pulled the day before at an adults’ party. Yet, she remained polite and was very apologetic for the fact that we would have to return the following day to buy our cake.

My life in Finland, England and Japan and my visits to several other countries have taught me that politeness is (a) a relative term and (b) doesn’t come as a given everywhere. For instance (see some examples below), I think that a Finnish cake counter assistant might have delivered the above Japanese cake counter assistant’s message in a slightly different manner. The word patronising would probably best describe my assumption of their manner.

To be fair, customer service in some small independently owned shops in Finland is often pretty amazing – the staff is polite, they know their stuff and are eager to help you to find just the right skis, biscuit cutter or chainsaw for you. But overall, I think customer service in Finland can be seen as somewhat dull and impolite. Interestingly (and importantly), I didn’t always think that it was dull and impolite.  Me having lived in England/Japan for the past 16 years means that I’ve come to expect (a) eye contact, (b) a friendly facial expression and (c) abundance of polite phrases such as ‘Thank you’ from the shop assistant. These are things that are not socially compulsory in Finnish customer service contexts in the same way they are in places like England and Japan.

What about England then? Well, all of us know that the British are perceived as polite in customer service (and elsewhere), and my view is that yeah, they are pretty friendly and polite in most places, but even though they do make you feel welcome with their pleases and thank-yous and their Have a nice days and You alright, loves I feel that many of them would not hesitate to sell you a birthday cake a couple of days out of date (providing that they had even noticed that the cake was past its consume by date). Maybe this is because shop assistants in England are commonly students who, instead of focusing on the task at hand, are probably in their minds re-playing the shenanigans from the night before – them skinny dipping on the Brighton seafront, snogging the bearded barman (or barwoman) or waking up in the pub toilets at 9am. The polite phrases and their friendly questions and comments on the weather, your purchases and your plans for the night are just part of their linguistic autopilot – a form of chitchat that comes naturally to most Brits. But even if the chitchat is not necessarily completely genuine, I think it’s kind of nice.

It’s not just bakery staff that are polite in Japan. All customer service staff in Japan are. I assume the reason for this is that the shop assistant is seen to slot into a lower level in the social hierarchy than the customer. Hence, the shop assistant must behave as if the customer is their superior.

When you walk into a shop and an unnaturally high pitch shop assistant’s (male or female) voice greets you with Irrashaimase! (‘Welcome!’). The pitch seems to correlate with the level of politeness – the higher the pitch, the more polite and welcoming they are perceived to be. Not only is the pitch high, they usually also smile while they say it.  It baffled me for a while to think how members of staff at shop entrances manage to keep the smile on their face pretty much throughout their 8-hour shift. I mean, you try fake-smiling for 30 minutes and see how you all of a sudden show an uncanny resemblance to Gordon Brown (if you don’t know who Gordon Brown is, you haven’t missed much. All you need to know is that it’s not a good look). But then I saw a gadget – a bit like Thigh Master for your face – which can be used to give your facial muscles a workout to survive the demands of the Japanese customer-service industry.

 

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Picture: Amazon.co.uk

 

I want to emphasise that when you make these kinds of comparisons between different cultures, it is important to remember that there are different norms for politeness in different countries. A native to a particular country might not perceive a certain behaviour impolite while a foreigner (or expat), who is not used to those norms, finds themselves tutting. Importantly, what really counts is the natives’ perception of a person’s behaviour.

A couple of good examples of cross-cultural differences in politeness in customer service come from our recent visit to Hong Kong (note, these were observed in small local restaurants/shops. In the 5-star hotels and restaurants the service was fantastic).

 

The waiter, Hong Kong

I requested water that we had already ordered ten minutes earlier but that had not been brought to our table with the food and other drinks we ordered.

Me: Excuse me, could we have 4 glasses of water please.

Waiter (with a firm voice): Wait!

 

The restaurant cashier, Hong Kong

When paying our bill at a restaurant exit my husband hands money to the cashier. My husband turns his head to me to say something at which point the cashier hands my husband his change. My husband doesn’t respond instantly because he is looking at me. So the cashier eyeballs my husband with disbelief, extends the change closer to my husband and with an angry expression on her face says: Yes?!

 

The shop assistant, Hong Kong

I bought some bottled water in 7-Eleven. With a straight, tired of life expression on her face the cashier goes: Bag?

 

Hong Kong’s customer service representatives’ single word communication with customers seemed rather caveman-like to me, but I knew that such expressions are a normal way to communicate in Hong Kong and thus I tried not to be offended.

Finland is my native country, which means that I have a relatively good understanding as to when a Finnish person is being rude or just ‘Finnish’. As I mentioned above, I find Finnish customer service in general a little impolite (due to lack of chitchat or thank-yous) but the lack of these is not really the end of the world – it is just the way Finnish customer service works. However, I’ve experienced some pretty out of order behaviour in Finland recently.

 

The barmaid, Finland

I was in Finland for a school reunion. A group of us old college mates ended up in a local pub in Hamina. I went to the bar to buy a drink (note: in Finland everyone buys their own drinks, buying rounds is pretty much unheard of!) and thought that I’d buy two small (30 gram) bags of crisps for the group to share.

Barmaid: €14

Me: Sorry, how much are the bags of crisps?

Barmaid: €3.50 per bag

Me: Blimey these are expensive. In a pub in England a bag of crisps would cost maybe £1.

Barmaid: Yeah? Well, that’s why the Brits are all so fat.

Just in case you are wondering, she didn’t say it as a joke. Her face looked like what some Finns might call (by using some slightly less offensive terminology) a ‘female elephant’s private parts’. The next time I visit the pub maybe I will take a complimentary Japanese face muscle trainer with me in attempt to wipe that elephant related expression off her face.

 

The shop assistant, Finland

One time I was at Helsinki airport. I was in a duty free shop buying some Finnish delicacies (liquorice vodka, rye bread, chocolates) to take back home with me. My shopping ended up filling half of the basket. When I got to the till there was nowhere to put the basket and the conveyer belt was one of those short, 70cm, ones. There was no queue so I didn’t really know what to do with my shopping, and so placed the basket on the conveyer belt and thought that the cashier would take the basket (as they do in Japan) and place the items in the packing area when they’ve rang them through the till. But no, this cashier must have been related to the barmaid in Hamina. She looks at me and says with a patronising voice:

Can you take that basket of yours down. The conveyer belt will collapse underneath the weight of it.

Pretty weak conveyer belts they’ve got at Helsinki Airport Duty Free, given that I only had one bottle of Liquorice Vodka and some other items in my basket. What if the customer had been a hard-core liquorice vodka fan buying several bottles and had placed those bottles on the conveyer belt, with or without the basket?

 

The cashier, Finland

I was paying for a chocolate bar or something at a kiosk. I paid with a €5 note, but the cashier gave me €8 change.

Me: Sorry, you gave me too much change. I gave you a fiver.

Annoyed cashier: Well, if you don’t want it, give it back then.

 

Counter to Japan where the customer is seen as ‘superior’, for some reason, the above Finnish shop assistants seem to see themselves as superior and the customer as some kind of a brain dead camel. Maybe I haven’t lived/travelled in enough countries to be aware that even ruder customer service representatives exist somewhere outside of Finland (if you have, please educate me!), but, based on the above examples, I feel that in Finland there are surprisingly large number of people in customer service who would be more suited to work as a lighthouse keeper, a dominatrix, or a monk that has taken the vow of silence.

 

 

iPhone cameras for perverts

Photo from Wikipedia

Photo from Wikipedia

For about a year now I have been sumo wrestling with my Japanese iPhone, namely with its camera function. The problem is that I haven’t managed to mute the clicking (shutter) sound that the phone makes when I’m taking a photo.

I am sure most of you reading this in Europe or America have disabled the camera shutter sound on your phone, as a clicking phone camera is as annoying and embarrassing as trying to fart silently but not succeeding. The obvious problem is: I’m at a quiet Japanese temple and click click – I get some disapproving looks. I’m observing my son’s Aikido belt test: click click and the black belt sensei is on the verge of pulling some black belt moves on me for disrupting the test. I’m trying to take a photo of my daughter and son hugging each other asleep and click click…(sob ‘Mummy’ sob)…SHIT. You get the point, right? – Annoying and embarrassing.

Then, a couple of days ago, I learned that in Japan the manufacturer settings are such that you cannot turn the shutter sound off your mobile. On a positive note, I wasn’t just an idiot who could not find the correct sub-directory on their phone to switch the sound effect off. On a negative note, the clicking sound is here to stay.

I believe there are at least two reasons for the compulsory camera shutter sound in Japan:

(1) Many Japanese men display unacceptable camera behaviour, in that they feel it is not out of the order to stick their mobile phone under a woman’s skirt on a busy commuter train or when standing behind them on the escalator and take a photo.

Japanese men’s gross camera etiquette, reminded me of my husband telling me some years ago about a 50-something American guy sharing the same dorm as him in a Mexican hostel. The American guy had told my husband that he liked mixed dorms because they allowed him to take photos of sleeping girls in their underwear. So I suppose it is not just the Japanese men…

(2) Japanese people like their privacy, and they probably do not particularly like to have their photo taken without knowing about it. I mean, they are private to the point that book shops over here cover the books you purchase for free so that in a public place no one can see what you are reading (see photo below). Pretty much all books get covered – even books like Mary Poppins.

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However, me being from Europe means that every time I see a covered book on the train, I am convinced that instead of Mary Poppins the person holding it is reading the Kama Sutra, 100 days of Sodom or at least Fifty Shades of Grey.

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I have to confess – not to having read Kama Sutra or 100 days of Sodom – but to having taken photos of Japanese people without them knowing about it. I just find their Kimonos, their Cosplay outfits and their extremely high heels so fascinating.

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In my defence, it is not just me who takes photos without asking for permission. You see, Japanese people find my children, especially my 4-year old daughter, as attractive as a fly finds a tub of treacle. And so, whenever we are out, random passers-by exclaim: Kawaii! (i.e. Cute!) and on a daily basis I see people taking photos of my daughter (without asking me whether that is ok). I suppose that makes us even.

Based on the above, perhaps there is something to be said about the Japanese mobile phones and the compulsory camera shutter sound. Perhaps the clicking sound should be a permanent feature of phones in every country. However, if you have a Japanese mobile phone and would rather have a silent camera function, you can get an app called Smallsound or Silentcamera which will silence your mobile phone camera function. But, please do so only if you are not a pervert harassing women (or men) on commuter trains, escalators or hostel dormitories.