E-mail – To elementary school teacher – Japanese culture

Hello Patty,

Here are some things I’ve learned that simply never occurred to me before and have learned from. As you know well, they are not ready for some of the material yet I included it so that I could paint a fuller picture of why these things occur.

1. Be clean!

Japan is a Buddhist / Shinto country.  Japanese adapt and accept other religions easily but are not “religious” as we like to think of religious. This is to say that there are shrines and temples everywhere but it’s mostly a cultural aspect and they go there on certain holidays to pray for things like health and good fortune.  They don’t go on a regular basis.  This religious aspect is important because in the Buddhist culture as in Muslim culture cleanliness is extremely important.  Unfortunately it wasn’t so for the early Christians and they closed all of the public baths in Cordoba, Spain when they took it over from the Muslims.

So in keeping with this culture of cleanliness, one of the most favorite activities of the Japanese is bathing.  The most favorite retreat for all Japanese is called the “Onsen” or “hotspring.”  When I first heard of the “hotspring” I pictured a geyser that shoots out of the earth.  I soon learned that a “hotspring” was a place where they tap the water that is heated by volcanoes and pool it to the surface. 

The water is very hot and usually white in color.  It is full of sulfur and is supposed to be good for the skin.  The only problem westerners have with this is that you have to enter naked.  Being so, they are usually but not always separated by gender. When my parents came my mom wouldn’t think of it but dad had no problem. This is not a completely western problem since Germans also have their own
version of hotsprings.  I personally love them and feel so relaxed after bathing in this hot water.  The best hot springs are in areas where it snows and they are outside.  So imagine yourself sitting in a steaming hot bath with snow all around you.  It’s truly an experience.

One important point about these baths.  You must shower before you get in and not have any soap on you.  This ensures that it will stay clean for everyone.  They also usually have a sauna as well so you can sweat and purge yourself of all the impurities.

2.  Take off your shoes!

When entering a Japanese house and certain sections of restaurants where you sit on “tatami” or straw matting you must always take off your shoes.  This stems from their idea of “uchi soto” which means outside and inside.  This idea pervades their culture and the outside is always dirty while the inside or home is extremely clean.  It never occurred to me but this idea of taking off your shoes really makes good sense and is a custom I will continue to practice for the rest of my life. 

Since we spend so much time cleaning our homes, why would we not take off our shoes that have gone through mud and dirt outside?  I know when we get new carpets in America we always take off our shoes to keep them clean but soon forget.  Why do we forget?  Do we actually wish to make them dirty?  We can find in some of the nicer homes in America that the family does require one to take off their shoes.  If we think about it logically, we should all practice this custom.

3.  Food

Since Japan is an island country fish is a staple as is rice.  They eat
Sushi and other healthy foods on a daily basis.  Rice is eaten with almost every meal and since it is low in nutritional value, we know why the Japanese are smaller than westerners.  Unfortunately McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants have invaded Japan.  Japanese have taken quite well to McDonald’s and they are starting grow bigger (fatter) because they are eating this food.  One interesting aspect concerning McDonald’s is that here in
Japan, due to declining profits they have combined it with a café and now have McDonald’s Café.  The environment is that of a café where one can relax and read books.  They changed the menu a little bit but apparently it wasn’t working too well because they added most of the old items back on the menu. The drinks are served in a real glass and the food used to be put on a plate which they stopped doing about one month ago.  They also charge more for the same food.

My personal favorite food here is hokke which is a type of cooked fish that you eat by putting little bits of radish on it with a drop of soy sauce.  My other favorite food isn’t actually Japanese but actually Korean.  It is called “yakiniku” or cooked meat, but translated into English becomes “Korean Barbecue.”  They serve very small platters of thinly cut small pieces of meat that you cook on a small grill in front of you.  I like mine with small bits of onion and lemon juice.  It is truly fabulous!  I’m sure America has these restaurants in California and eventually it will spread East.

As for Japanese style fast food you have two restaurants which (I hear) can also be found in California.  These two famous restaurants are “Yoshinoya” and “Matsuya.”  The main food is a bowl of rice with grilled strips of beef on top.  I always opt for the raw egg that I must stir and put into this “rice bowl.”  In Japanese it is called “Gyuudon,” and is the main diet of the hard working Japanese “Salaryman” or company employee.  It is very cheap costing only 2 dollars.

4.  The Land

Japan is mostly covered with mountains which means people must live in crowded communities.  This would cause problems for westerners since we need our space but does not cause problems for the Japanese.  In order to live in such tight confines, the people had to learn how to resolve their differences peacefully which ultimately became one of the main aspects of their culture which I’ll explain below.

5.  Japanese Prefer Harmony At All Times. 

They have a group mentality and must think of what is best for the group before themselves individually.  We in the west have an “independent” spirit and always think of ourselves first.  You will hear Americans claim how great this virtue is and that this “pioneering spirit” has produced one of the greatest nations ever.  The Japanese will say that their culture is better since it promotes harmony and
therefore the royal line has gone unbroken for 2000 years. 

At this point I believe a mix of the two is the best course.  Being independent results in independent thinking and finding new ways of accomplishing goals.  However, this often leads to conflict.  The Japanese are reluctant to disagree with each other and therefore are unable to come up with any truly original ideas.

Here is a true example of how conflict was avoided and is personal.  I once left my e-mail capable phone at my house and my girlfriend being silly read it.  She new she shouldn’t have but did anyway.  She saw a message from another woman asking me to meet her the next day.  When I came home my girlfriend didn’t say anything, but I could notice a slight difference in her behavior.  I asked her what was wrong and she told me “nothing.”  I kept asking throughout the evening but she kept giving me the same answer.  So I had to get a little angry to get the answer out of her. 

Finally she said “I have to apologize to you, I read your mail.”  Therefore without “disharmony” she was putting pressure on me to explain myself.  The e-mail she had read was from the fiancée of my best friend who desired an English lesson that next day.  So she felt silly and now won’t do it anymore.  This method of putting pressure on me works quite well since if I am actually in error and do care about her, I will correct my action and we can achieve “harmony”
again without any disturbance or harsh words.  I really like this system.

However, it can be bad at some times.  For example at work.  If your boss tells you to do something he wants you to do he won’t say it with force such as “do this” but will put it in like this  “it would be better if you could do this “ne.”   This “ne” is important and is a particle that means “I’m sure you already know this so I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.  For example if I say “boy it’s cold!”  I would add “ne” since I’m sure you already know it’s cold outside.  This is used much more often then the particle “yo” which means “I’m telling you new information.” 

So therefore, when the boss says this it puts pressure on you and being Japanese you cannot disagree directly but must put it in softer terms such as “I understand what you mean, but in my humble opinion I think this option may be better, maybe, don’t you think so?”

The entire language is like this and using this method almost all conflict can be successfully avoided.  Sometimes “rude” foreigners start to get angry if they disagree and in unimportant cases most Japanese will just let you do what you want to avoid conflict unless they are “strong.”

Finally, when meeting new people, the Japanese are always trying to figure out their status in relation to the other person.  This hierarchy system is very strong and important.  The best way to figure out if you should use extremely polite speech is discovered by exchanging business cards.

Actually, I should write all this down in more detail on my website and will do so soon.  This hierarchy “class system” isn’t unknown to the westerner. We don’t have it so much in America, but in England class distinctions are still very strong and can also be seen in speech if you compare “the queen’s English” with that of the common man. 

Actually the Queen of England, Lords, noblemen still look down upon those in lower classes.  The Japanese never look down and treat everyone with respect.  But then all Japanese also know their place, are extremely polite and do not desire conflict.

Like I mentioned, you’ve given me a good idea for my website and I’ll post it on my website in a few days.  I may also put it in the book I’m trying to write.  My ideas often sting my fellow Americans and I still need to soften the tone quite a bit, but as I mentioned it’s only a draft and has a year or two of work that needs to be done.

I hope this helps.  I’ll let you know if I think of anything else.


—– Original Message —–
Sent: Friday, January 30, 2004 9:28 PM
Subject: RE: Former Student

Dear Matt,

Thank you so much for emailing back.  You are so grown up and mature–I still think of you as being in the “upper” grades of Trinity School!:)  I guess that I am showing my age now!:)

I spent some time at Saint Margaret of Cortona on Wednesday afternoon and I had a nice conversation with your mom while I was there.  We are going to be doing a First Communion “Retreat” for the Second graders in March and I was learning about the Religious Education program “The Good Shepherd” and gathering information for the retreat.

Matt, anything that you can share about the food, clothing, shelter,
culture, things that the children in Japan hold in high regard or value (teachers? education?)would be of great interest to everyone in Second grade.  We have been studying “needs” vs. “wants” and “consumers” vs. “producers” in Social Studies.  We have also been studying maps (North, South, East, West) and different types of landforms–hills, mountains, islands, peninsulas, etc.

Food is important in all cultures and what types of food do the Japanese eat that may be different or unusual to the students in America?  Don’t they consume a lot of fish and vegetables or do they frequent the “fast-food” establishments more often (Wendy’s, McDonalds)like their American counter-parts?

The Second graders participate in Computer class every Thursday and we have an internet-connected computer in the classroom that the students would be able to use for “educational purposes!”:)  I have also made the connection, with the students, that you are a “former” student and look at the career you have chosen and the distances you have traveled!!!  It goes to show that you can be anything that you want to be and go where ever you choose to go in your life!:)

Please feel free to write-anytime.  Please call me Patty–I have never
been married and after hearing “Miss xxxx” every school day for the past 21 years, I like the people that I encounter outside of  School to
call me “Patty!”:)  Again, thank you for taking the time to correspond with the Second graders and myself!

Take Care,


By Mateo de Colón

Global Citizen! こんにちは!僕の名前はマットです. Es decir soy Mateo. Aussi, je m'appelle Mathieu. Likes: Languages, Cultures, Computers, History, being Alive! \(^.^)/