The need for speed

There is internet in my house! It’s only been 11 weeks. Moved in on the 17th of June, got internet on the 3rd of September.

Had a recent trip back to Australia and found myself making the generalisation that everything is faster in Australia, except going through the turnstile at stations. That takes ages in Australia. And the arrival of trains, that is also often slow. No bullet trains in Australia, either, so those kinds of trains are obviously slower. And postage. That is unpredictable these days – not consistently slow, but not as fast as it used to be, I think. And building is definitely slower in Australia, not like how things just pop up in Japan. Also Australian ski lifts are ridiculously slow – no double speed ones – but then again, the mountains are pretty small compared to Japanese ones.

Is it faster to get internet installed in your house in Australia? I don’t know – I’ve always lived in places where it was already connected. But in Japan, it’s always taken months in the places I’ve lived.

Road construction workers work at the same speed in Australia and Japan. How many tradies does it take to dig a hole? Seven-ish: one to operate the machine, one to stand out the front directing traffic, one to stand out the back directing traffic, and another four to stand around doing nothing in particular. Having a smoke, maybe. That’s the same everywhere, right? Sorry if that’s offensive to you. But construction/roadworks people, you often seem a bit free.

So some things are faster in Australia. What’s faster?

Marking exams. Takes what one might assume is a reasonable amount of time, like, I dunno, a week or two for a multiple-choice test. For private music exams, it takes, what, a few days for it to be processed? I don’t know how that’s done these days. For written and oral school state-wide exams it might take longer, like a few weeks to a month.

The Japanese Language Proficiency Test, aka JLPT or 日本語能力試験, is a colour-the-bubble-with-an-HB-pencil kind of multiple choice test. It takes about 4 hours to do. The results are available online after about 2 months. The little certificate that presents the results officially on paper comes after about another month or two. Why does it take this long? Nobody knows, that I know of.

Also faster in Australia is people’s shower/bath time. In Australia I’m probably the slowest showerer in my family, and that’s not because of any funny business, I’m just slow. In a lot of Australia there used to be an official target of 3- or 4 minute showers, and there were (are?) specific times of specific weekdays where people were allowed to use mains water to water gardens, wash cars etc.

Signs like this are available at home/hardware shops. This is from Bunnings.

Australia is pretty short on water, and I grew up in a 14-year drought. My state talked about whether to get a water recycling plant or a desalination plant and ended up going with desalination. When water restrictions came in to my area, lots of people installed rainwater tanks and worked pretty hard to get more water-efficient. Now most healthy-looking gardens have signs in them to let people know they’re not using up the city’s water reserves.

A lot of Japanese people seem not to have ever heard of water restrictions and do stuff like watering their driveway. Every time I stay with Japanese people, they comment on how quickly I’m out of the shower. Even if I have a bath too, which I think most Japanese family members do. I guess the national habit of washing yourself at night, at the end of the day, is really seen as a way to relax and take your time. I also like to relax and take my time, but apparently it doesn’t take so much time for me to do this?

Driving in Australia is pretty fast compared to Japan. Heading to the airport in Sydney to pick someone up, I was distraught to see a sign that it was still another 6km, because we were running late and in Japan with the traffic on that kind of road, it would take 20-30 minutes. I’d forgotten that in Australia, 6km=6 minutes on major roads. It did take about 6 minutes or maybe 10 with the traffic and lights.

It seems to take about twice as long to drive anywhere in Japan unless you use toll roads. I used to do a 70km drive to the prefectural capital pretty often when I was living up in the north of Japan, and that usually took about 2 hours. On the tollway it only took 1, or maybe not even that, but it cost about AU$12 (1,100 yen) so I didn’t use it that often. It wasn’t a bad way to spend a couple of hours with the friend I was often car pooling with. In Australia 70km would usually be more like a one-hour drive. If you have to drive across Melbourne or Sydney as part of it, make it an hour and a half.  Last year, in Hiroshima, I drove 20km to work every day. It took an hour or thereabouts, depending on what time I left home. Once it took an hour and twenty minutes. On Saturdays it took 30-40 minutes. Traffic can be slow in Australia too, but it’s kind of more accepted in most cities in Japan. I guess Japan does have more cities, more people and less space.

Australia’s not faster than Japan in most ways. I reckon the two countries even out to roughly the same for most things. Just some odd things I noticed being back in Oz recently.

Physical contact

I’ve recently started working as a kindergarten teacher in an international kindergarten. This has caused both the slowing of posts on Bijinjapan, and a few realisations about kids, both Japanese and in general.

Japan is, well, not famous exactly, but to put it another way, not known for having a very touchy-feely kind of culture. It’s kind of a paradox in that hugging and kissing are not seen in public, but everyone fully expects to be squished up against strangers in trains and pushes people out of the way in order to get out of said trains. Naturally this is not because everyone wants to be close to everyone else but because there is no space, but it’s seen as しょうがない: something that can’t be helped, so it’s accepted.

Australia is kind of the opposite in both of these things: it’s normal to hug and/or kiss friends and loved ones and to physically express affection (to a point), but I think most people would avoid contact with strangers. That being said, people in Australia are probably getting more used to having other people in their face/armpit/back on trains and buses as the population grows in the cities.

Adults and adults

Having been in Japan on and off for about 5 years, I’m used to not making physical contact with anyone in Japan other than a significant other. As an ALT of course there were many many high-fives and tag games, and thumb wars, and getting hugged by kids I wasn’t allowed to hug back. But with other adults and people I meet as friends, nope. Waving, bowing, just saying bye… it’s got to a point now where when I have other foreign friends from hugging cultures, it’s kind of awkward waiting to see if one of you is going for the hug or not. And then there’s this thing where people go for group dinners and then everyone’s saying goodbye, and it somehow gets to hugging everyone one by one, kind of lining up creeping-death style, which can get an extra level of weirdness if there are some in the group you don’t like.

The cheek bump, a.k.a. kiss. Image: the Globe and Mail

In Australia I don’t remember it seeming such an issue. As I might have written before, men usually do some sort of handshake thing, or occasionally a back-clappy hug, and when women are involved it’s cheek kisses and/or hugs. Greeting hugs aren’t great hugs, to be sure, but they’re a thing.

As also mentioned before, friends of the same gender do hug each other in Japan, and it’s less homophobic than Australia for boys.

Baseball kids. Image: this livedoor popo blog

The physical contact that does seem accepted in Japan the way a hug would be in Australia is hand-to-hand contact. Not just handshakes, but double high-fives between excited friends, or even occasionally kind of grabbing onto the other person’s hands and holding on tight for a few seconds. Of course, that really is a special occasion one. A drunk co-worker who was always fairly quiet and hard to read did this to me kind of emotionally, saying ‘thank you’ at the end of a farewell party. It felt as expressive as a hug, though in a different way. The only people who have held my hands in such a way in Australia are my mum and grandma. But at that party, I realised this sort of exchange was why I could see all the other people parting ways doing the same thing. Hands are powerful emotive tools in Japan… maybe that’s why it’s popular to wave with both?

The thing is in Japan, I’ve worked as an ALT until now, which in my case has meant working in public schools. I’ve been an ALT at a total of 16 schools in 4 prefectures, including elementary, junior high and senior high schools. So I’ve worked in 16 staff rooms and seen the working environment at a couple of Boards of Education, as well as watching various office-based TV dramas. And I can say with confidence that other than handshakes or adjusting the clothes on another teacher who is more junior than you (happened to me at least twice), people don’t usually touch other people at work. This probably doesn’t sound weird – it’s work, after all.

So it was quite a surprise when I came along to the international kindergarten and another teacher touched me on the arm, as in, held my arm for a second, when she said hello. I’d forgotten that some people do that. Then I noticed that quite a few people in the office had this kind of friendly touching going on in their interactions. It wasn’t out of place to see 2 workers (who are obviously friends) sharing a hug this morning. It really is an international environment, and it was strange for me because it both made me feel more at home and less like I knew how to behave at work.  We went to a work party and the principal hugged everyone.

To be fair, in Australia I’ve only worked in a limited number of places, so I don’t know what most working environments are like. Does this sound unusual to you? Maybe it’s normal for a kindergarten or childcare centre?

Adults and kids

In Australian families, I think that while it varies between families and individuals, hugging and kissing family members is seen as totally normal and expected. Everyone has probably had the experience of dreading giving the mandatory kiss on the cheek to some older relative who we find gross for some reason.

I’ve heard that in Japan, kissing is seen as reserved for sexual relationships (that seems to fit with how you never see it in public, I guess). It’s seen as so intimate that a lot of the time, even a romantic drama will culminate in a hug and you won’t see an on-screen kiss… so kissing would be seen by some as perverted to do it to your kids. I’m not sure how true this is, or rather, for how many people this has any truth. But there is definitely less kissing of children in Japan than in Australia, especially in front of others and especially between opposite-gender parent and child, I think.

What about kids kissing their parents in Japan? I can’t yet comment with any accuracy, but I can tell you that my kindergarten kids kiss their teachers. Maybe a third of my class is on the cuddly side, and one kid is always grabbing and kissing my hand (which is usually about said kid’s head height). This kid and one other do like to kiss my face when I’m at their height too. One Japanese friend tells me that those who are inclined to kissing and hugging may do it a lot, and other kids may not be so inclined – that sounds pretty much the same as Australia to me.

The other thing you get with kids in Japan that I never heard of outside Japan is the dreaded kancho (浣腸, かんちょう or カンチョー, Dad and Ed) which translates to ‘enema.’ Kids do it to each other and to teachers too. Not usually to woman teachers, luckily for me. I’ve also almost never seen girls do it, but boys I have, plenty of times. To kancho someone, clasp your hands together and point the index fingers together – the middle fingers too as an option – and then try to poke them up the behind of your victim. This excellent Tofugu post has some strategies on coping with kancho and other things Japanese kids like to do to their teachers, including boob grab, crotch grab and others.

Kancho. Image: Quora

Political correctness and workplace etiquette

In Australia, though it’s quite a hugging society, school teachers these days don’t touch kids for fear of anything going awry, being misunderstood and getting sued. I don’t know what it’s like in childcare and kindergartens, or even primary school, but I’m pretty sure I’ve heard of parents suing high schools for their kid getting an injury after leaning back on their chair and the teacher trying to make them stop. And everyone is terrified of paedophilia. So I have the impression that most teachers and schools are very careful about their policies on what kind of contact (if any) is acceptable. This ‘No Touch Teachers’ article is a bit old but explains what I’m referring to here.

This is the kind of hugging you get in kindergartens here. Image: a Nara kindergarten in nobinobi blog

Japan doesn’t seem to have compunctions about touching kids. I’m not talking about corporal punishment as such, but at primary schools, a kid who’s being silly might get lightly boffed on the head, or a crying child might get a hug. As an ALT I was told not to hug, but my companies often suggested activities that would involve patting kids on the head, and high-fives are pretty much mandatory. Through junior high school and maybe even high school, arm wrestling and thumb wrestling are also pretty common ALT activities. Teachers of the man kind will manipulate boys’ bodies into various stretches or positions for sports training, as will woman teachers with girls (this is me trying to be PC with my gender terminology here, if ‘man’ and ‘woman’ sound weird to you in this sentence instead of male and female). I think this is probably seen as a bit risky in Australia these days – Australian readers, does that sound right?

Some sort of training with teachers helping students. Image: Interaction school blog

Think that’s all on this for now. I’ll try to write again soon; with the job, moving house and a Japanese test coming up in the next few weeks it’ll be short and hopefully sweet. As always, thanks for reading!

On singing and playing instruments

Happy Tuesday and welcome to this post, which is all in English for now and where I intend to write about how music fits into people’s lives in Australia and Japan. In particular I want to write about singing and people’s attitudes towards it. I won’t write much about classroom music teaching, due to its being a large can of worms and my not being well versed in it. However, I will write a bit about clubs at schools and how individuals go about their musical endeavours, such as instrument and voice lessons and practice. So, here we go.

In Australia, people are self-conscious about singing in front of others. I suspect singing in itself is not seen as cool unless you’ve got a microphone, and maybe not then unless you get properly into it and kill it (you know, nail it, i.e. do an impressive job of it), like Adele or Guy Sebastian. People like singing along to music that is being played, and indeed, if you go to a nightclub or a concert with songs you know being played, singing along enthusiastically is the done thing. However, if you try to get someone to sing you a bit of a song, even just to get the idea of how it goes and whether you know it or not, most people awkwardly refuse, saying, ‘oh no, I can’t sing.’

Those who reckon they can sing like Sia aren’t always so shy, unlike perhaps Sia herself. Image: wetpaint

If you’re in Australia, you may have encountered some recent journalism on ‘tone deafness.‘ Lots of people reckon they are tone deaf – though whether they actually believe it or just say it to either look humble or get out of singing in front of someone, who can say? For most people, though, it’s not true. According to this journal of neuroscience that the Internet conveniently found for me, about 4% of people actually have what is termed congenital amusia, which means it’s hard for them to distinguish between pitches and therefore to carry a tune, or to hear nuances in a melody that other people might. So what’s going on with those from the other 96% that reckon they can’t sing?

I think there’s a fear of failure for people singing in Australia, as strong as the fear of academic failure for school kids in Japan. Especially for men. And not just a fear that they aren’t actually that good a singer, but you know, it’s a kind of non-aggressive self-expression, so to some Aussie blokes, this, for 1, isn’t seen as cool, blokey behaviour, and worse, could easily lead to your being misconstrued as gay. Know what IS blokey, though? This (around 00:40). Footy anthems and Happy Birthday get shouted: with large groups of Australian laypeople, especially men, there’s no perceptible attempt to ‘sing.’ You have the odd guy who actually thinks he can sing, and isn’t afraid to get behind a microphone and try his hand at some Frank Sinatra, and this is the kind you get in singing competitions and bands. And of course there are the other minorities who join choirs and stuff. They’re not usually among the ‘cool kids’ at school, at least not in my experience.

As is mentioned in the ABC article linked to above, I think a lot of people never honestly try to sing after being put down about their singing by parents, teachers or peers, early on in life, whether it’s being told that they’re tone deaf or that they don’t have a ‘good voice’ or whatever it may be. Maybe this discourages people and they get put off, like how I was with PE.

Many schools in Australia have choirs that students can join as a co-curricular activity. Notice the word ‘can’ here – it’s optional. And in most schools, I think there are things anyone can join. In my school, a lot of the kids who joined were not high in the social rankings of their various year levels and may have felt bullied, actively or passively, by those who were (the sporty kids). But I digress. I think most school choirs sound pretty good in general; they sound musical. There are usually enough people who are able to musically lead that those who are happier following.


My school had a House Music competition. Not as in the genre of music that is house, but as in, our school was divided into houses like in Harry Potter, and the houses competed against each other in events like athletics, cross country, swimming day and House Music. As a music nerd, it was the event of the year for me.

House Music had four events for each house: a stage/dance event, an instrumental, a duo/trio and a choir event. They were all voluntary except for choir. And they were all usually pretty great to watch and listen to – except for choir. Generally, you would hear the girls’ part(s) singing the notes intended. They weren’t very confident, so they were usually a bit quiet and the leaders were always telling them to sing louder. And you would hear… maybe 60 boys all shouting what might have been words at the same time. It was kind of like a footy anthem, except because there was a piano accompaniment and they’d been trained with people clapping the beat and there was a conductor trying furiously to keep time, they didn’t get faster.

It’s really different in Japan. Singing is much more a usual part of life. It’s not seen as uncool/gay to sing if you’re a guy. Sometimes groups of boys go to karaoke together – or men and/or women for work afterparties. And boy bands are still a thing in Japan. K-pop and J-pop is probably at least half made up of idol groups of 3 or more members, sometimes more like 48. Boys OR girls singing and dancing in unison with some solo parts (mixed groups of this type don’t seem to exist outside AAA).

Popular boy band EXILE. Image: this commercial page

School music classes involve a lot of singing together in Japan. I haven’t been to many, but I hear them all the time. There always seems to be some sort of choral singing. It’s usually popular music – that is to say, kids start with children’s songs, nursery rhymes and folk songs, then broaden out to other kinds of pop. They don’t sing classical or church music.

Some schools have choir clubs, some don’t. But all junior high schools have a choral event, which all the students join; it’s compulsory, but I’ve never heard any complain about having to do it. When you see them perform, most seem to enjoy it, and you can hear them – they’re not miming. For some of the really naughty or restless kids (possibly undiagnosed ADD or an ignored learning difficulty), singing in choirs is the only time I’ve seen them join in and work constructively with the other students, or stay in one place for more than 2 minutes. Is this just my schools, or do your schools get equally into it, ALT readers?

In this choir event, home room classes compete against each other. Students accompany and conduct. The class practises together for a few weeks before the event and they usually sound pretty great. All the classes manage at least 2-part harmony, more often 3-part.

As a long-time choir singer and musician, there is something that really surprised me in choral rehearsals at some of my schools: When they have sectional rehearsals, i.e. when the sopranos, altos and boys (who evidently aren’t trusted to divide) are practicing their different parts separately, they all do it at the same time in the same room, and they do it by singing their part along with a CD.


How are you supposed to be able to figure out your own part when the same song is playing, in different places of the song, at the same time in 3 different parts of the room!?!?

When the whole of Year 7 and Year 8 were practicing their sending-off song the other day for the upcoming Year 9 graduation, they did this too in the school gym. The altos were in trouble because unlike the other two parts, they didn’t have enough space to make a circle so they were all in rows facing towards the middle of the gym, but the CD player they were using didn’t have an extension cord, so it was at the end of the second-back row and almost nobody could hear it. What they could hear was the boys and the sopranos belting out their respective parts with their respective CD accompaniments. It was mighty difficult for the altos to stick together. Some people started clapping the beat, but the ones clapping couldn’t hear the CD either so they were wrong and it all fell apart. Then it was time for me to go… I hope they worked it out in the end.

If this doesn’t seem weird to you, maybe I should explain that in every choir I’ve sung in in Australia, and also the ones I briefly joined in France and Hungary, if the parts are practising their individual parts, they do it in different places so they can hear themselves. In school choir, this meant using various different practice rooms in the music centre. In other choirs, this meant either using different rooms or some groups going outside or whatever. I’ve also never seen people learning their part using a CD together. Some singers learn their part by singing along with the recording at home or in the car, but I’d never seen it happen in rehearsal until I came to Japan.

On the other hand, the brass band in a Japanese school almost never seems to rehearse as a whole band. They just do individual practice in the corridors (percussion stays in the music room) where they can not only hear each other, but all the kids practising baseball, volleyball, track and field etc. can also hear. This took me a while to get my head around too: in school band in Australia, we were expected to learn our parts at home, and do our practice at home, and then we’d only rehearse together once or twice a week. This was more or less true for choir too – we only rehearsed together once or twice a week, so it was precious time and we didn’t have sectional rehearsals very often.

After a while I worked out that this is why kids have band/choir practice every day in Japan – school is where they do their practice. They probably can’t do it at home, because it will disturb the neighbours. (Have you ever lived near a drummer?) And most schools I’ve been to in Japan only have one music room – they don’t have a music department with practice rooms. Using CDs for choir parts enables the kids to follow along without having to be able to sight-sing, which is a pretty difficult skill to learn for a lot of people. I guess they just learn to put up with having to tune out of the other parts rehearsing at the same time.

Australian and other western readers, does this sound right to you? Does singing make people cringe, where you come from? How do you feel about karaoke? How much singing do you remember doing at school, and what were attitudes like towards it?

Japanese Post Attempt No. 1

(English below)








This post is, as you see, my first attempt at writing a post in Japanese. The contents go something like this:

I’m in a fix.

I’ve been writing this blog for over a year now, but what should I be trying to convey here? Small, everyday things? The culture of greetings…?

The other day, I read an article that was interesting but annoyed me. The interesting part was reading some things that a Japanese girl who did a one-year study abroad in Australia thought about Australia. The annoying part was that what she seemed to get out of it was a renewal of her ability to appreciate the goodness of Japan. (From here on it’s my opinion which will be nothing new to any long-time readers, but I haven’t written in Japanese before.)

Why did I find this annoying?

Perhaps the way the writing implies a belief that Japan is better than anywhere else just doesn’t fit with my own way of thinking. To me as an Australian, such strong patriotic or even nationalistic thinking seems a tad gross. I think most Australians would feel something like, ‘Australia is where I brought up and it’s home, so it’s good to me.’ But I can’t think, and I don’t think most Australians would think, ‘Australia is Australia, therefore it’s the best.’ Wouldn’t that be the opposite of the humility Japan is so proud of?

Of course, I know many Japanese people don’t think the same way as the writer of that piece. Just, reading that was interesting and at the same time, irritating.

Reader, are there things you would like to know about Australia or about an Australian’s perspective of something in Japan? If there are, please let me know. And sorry for my poor Japanese; I’m writing this in order to try to improve 🙂

*end translation*

Here is a list of the things that surprised that writer, by the way. I won’t translate the whole article, but just to give you an idea.

  1. Australians don’t really use umbrellas
  2. The products at the supermarket are all big
  3. Different people seem to feel hot and cold more (some people are in T-shirts and shorts while others might be wearing winter clothes)
  4. It’s hard to find a bus timetable
  5. Australia is really anti-smoking
  6. Some people don’t wear shoes outside
  7. The shops close early
  8. You can drink and drive (The legal limit is BAC 0.05)
  9. They sell some wine that is cheaper than soft drinks
  10. You have to wear a helmet when you ride a bike
  11. Some people eat things before paying for them (in the supermarket. Bijinjapan input here: I have never seen or heard of this happening. Have you?)

Hospitality and customer service

Last time my parents came to visit Japan, they had a bit of an adventure getting here. They were supposed to arrive in my city at about 9am, but several months before the trip, Qantas made a mistake and then didn’t notice it until about a week before the flight. Because of this, Mum and Dad had about an 8-hour wait at Haneda Airport. If Qantas had realised their mistake in a timely fashion, they would have been able to get on one of the many flights to my city that departed Haneda during that time, but as it was, they were all full.

Apparently the customer lounge at Haneda is really brown.

While they were waiting, of course Mum and Dad tried to get themselves onto an earlier flight, and when they arrived, Dad talked a bit about how nice the customer service staff were. They basically said, no, we can’t do anything, but ‘they said it really nicely.’

I think this typifies what you can expect in Japanese hospitality. Here’s a similar thing from a different perspective:

A friend of mine spent a while in both China and Japan, and afterwards said they were opposites. This was because in China, everyone was willing to do anything you might want, very ‘yes, we can do that, we can do that’ but it would eventually turn out they couldn’t. In Japan, meanwhile, if you wanted something everyone would maintain that it wasn’t possible, but eventually it would turn out it actually was, but because it wasn’t the done thing, or the usual way, or because of the paperwork, it was hard to get people to do things.

There are plenty of exceptions to most of the rules you can find about Japan and its hospitality. For instance, there is a family-run place near where I live where there is almost always a mistake in the order. Usually it’s that something gets forgotten, though once some food was cold in the middle. They are always very apologetic and compensate by giving us a freebie or something. It’s kind of a running joke with them and us that something always goes wrong. They’re also very friendly, convenient, and some of the menu is great value, which is why we keep going back.

But here are a few generalisations you could make about Japanese hospitality:

Japanese hospitality is polite and pleasant. In Japan, people working in a service role (hotel staff, wait staff, shop staff) always use what is termed respectful speechsonkeigo 尊敬語 or humble speech, kenjōgo 謙譲語 with customers/guests, even if the customer is a 7-year-old with a Pokemon coupon at a convenience store and the shop assistant is a middle-aged person. It’s not so much that the customer is seen as always right; more like, the customer is sacred. Or royal, or something. It really threw me the first time a waitress attached -sama さま to my name when I made a booking. I didn’t realise at the time that this is standard practice in Japan.

When you stay in a ryokan, at some point while you are at dinner or going somewhere, the staff come, move the table and lay out the futon for you.

When you stay in a ryokan, at some point while you are at dinner or going somewhere, the staff come, move the table and lay out the futon for you.

Meanwhile, in retail shops, the shop assistants are trained to shout out or nasally drawl irasshaimase! いらっしゃいませ〜!(Welcome!) at random intervals or whenever someone comes into the shop, and sometimes a ‘please look around!’ dōzo goran kudasaimase! どうぞご覧くださいませ〜!  Or they shout out stuff like ‘We’re having a sale at the moment! 20% off!’ There was a one-hundred-yen shop I used to frequent a bit in central Japan, and there were two shop assistants. Every time one of them said irasshaimase! the other one copied straight away, so it had the effect of an echo that moved around the shop. This constant calling out can feel a bit intrusive and off-putting to Westerners. The tone can sometimes sound a bit angry, too. It took me a while to get used to it; now it’s kind of a comfort and a reminder, or reassurance, that I’m in a shop and there is a customer service assistant around. I think the closest thing I know of in Australia is the spruikers who stand outside jewellery shops on Swanston St, or outside restaurants on Lygon St in Melbourne, and try to get you to come in. The differences here would be: that the vast majority of shops in Australia don’t have people doing this; that as far as I know, none of them in Japan has a microphone (unlike the Swanston St ones which are more obnoxious but at least not targeted at any one person, while the sleazy restaurant spruikers on Lygon are more like charity workers on street corners, trying for everyone that walks past); and that it is totally expected in a Japanese clothes shop. In bookshops and electrical shops, they usually do it in a more understated kind of way.

Japanese customers behave however they want. I think the way they see it, they are paying for the privilege to relax and act as they want to. Most of the time they’re pretty well-behaved and polite anyway, but when people aren’t, I think most hospitality staff would be expected to grin and bear it. Though I think sushi chefs might be an exception – apparently they train for 20 years and the first 5 are just learning how to make rice, so they probably think they deserve some respect. Customers may or may not use polite speech (teineigo 丁寧語 e.g. desu です and masu ます, as opposed to full-on sonkeigo 尊敬語) with shop assistants, wait staff etc. As far as I can see, it’s up to them and how they want to talk. This has put me in something of a quandary at times, because my basic instinct in navigating the minefield of How to Behave in Japan is that with people I don’t know, I should be polite. As far as I can make out, that’s what most people do – except for maybe old people. But if the people I’m with are just like ‘give us this’ I sometimes feel like it’s a bit direct and not very nice towards the waiter and then I don’t know how to talk. Kudasai ください or onegaishimasu お願いします? Or just no please at all? ‘One Margherita.’ Whatever I end up going with, the wait staff never seem to notice my plight. They just take the order and bring the food, doing their job as usual.

Japanese restaurants and shops are known for not having a lot of flexibility. For instance, to stick with the pizza examples, if you want a mushroom, ham and olive pizza without the mushrooms, they might just say, No, that’s not on the menu, we can’t do it. This is mainly true for chain shops, I think, where the workers are students and their work training has only been how to do what’s on the menu, and they wouldn’t know what would happen if they changed the honey for jam or something. Recently, I’ve actually found most places to be very accommodating, including chains. Though to be fair, the only chain shops I’ve been to are Starbucks and Mister Donut, and Mosburger once or twice maybe, and the only alteration I’ve ever tried to make is to get a ‘chai tea latte’ with soy milk instead of cow milk. There’s never been a problem.

Australia in general is used to people with all sorts of dietary requests, with allergies and intolerances to basically everything. Gluten free got really trendy a while ago, which led to coconut and ‘paleo’ everything. Who knows what it is now. On this note, please enjoy this list of things Melburnians are ‘sick of being asked,’ including ‘Will they do gluten free?’ Some coffee snob places don’t have decaf coffee or soy milk, but most places are fine making alterations to their dishes, even if they complain in the kitchen about picky customers.

Australian hospitality on the whole is, I think, fairly informal and in my experience, friendly. Politeness doesn’t generally come into it. By this I don’t mean that waiters or customer service staff are rude, although some are – my mum recently had an experience with Officeworks that was way subpar, the workers totally incompetent and unapologetic for their incompetence. Qantas was also hopeless about the business of the unnecessary 8-hour wait in Haneda, seeming to care very little about the inconvenience to and dissatisfaction of the customers. But generally, I think most people working in customer service or hospitality would be friendly and helpful. On some occasions, polite would be the right word – but I think of that more for formal occasions or more posh restaurants than your standard cafe. Most retail workers will say, hello, how are you going, and maybe can I help you with something? But they always speak directly to people, never just to the room/shop/area in general. Sometimes they are quite chatty, probably more than you’d find in Japan.

One time last year, I went to a Korean restaurant that was evidently run by a Korean lady. How did we know? Well, to be honest, I can’t vouch that she was definitely Korean, but she definitely wasn’t Japanese. She spoke not a single word, the entire time we were ordering, waiting for and eating our meal. Not a ‘here you go’ or ‘what would you like?’ or anything. She just waited for us to order, went and made the food, came and plonked it down on our table, and then went away again. Maybe when we paid, she said how much it was or something. But none of the usual phrases. This experience stands out like a sore thumb in my memory of restaurants in Japan. I don’t remember much about the food other than that it was nice. But after we left the restaurant, she came running after us because I’d forgotten my sunglasses. She was actually really nice when she spoke to us – just, the whole usual Japanese hospitality style wasn’t part of what she did in her restaurant. So it was kind of a shock to miss and realise all the little things that Japanese hospitality workers usually provide.

I’m not out to say that one kind of hospitality is better than another. I like the informality you get in Australia – but general hospitality and customer service is one of the things about Japan that is easiest to appreciate.

Imagine you have been asked a difficult question. Maybe it’s difficult because you don’t know a correct answer (and you think you should). Maybe it’s difficult because you will either make yourself look bad or hurt someone by telling the truth. For example,

‘What’s the value of X in this question?’

Or, ‘How do you think he/she felt when you said that?’

Do you:

A. Admit the truth (for a maths problem, ‘I don’t know’?*)

B. Lie/make it up?

C. Steal the answer from someone else (with or without their consent)?

D. Say nothing?

The answer for me varies, depending on the situation. If I’m in class and I don’t know the answer, I’d choose A. If it’s a speaking or writing test, B: I’d say something, lie, waffle on about something and try to cover up the fact that I don’t know. I can’t think of a situation where I’ve copied from someone else – although I am aware of it as a possibility and it has occurred to me as an option in various written exams. I think most of the time, whether it’s an academic question or a personal question troubling me, I’d choose A or B. C doesn’t really come into it.

Blanking out, either rabbit-in-headlights style or I’ll-just-look-down-at-my-textbook-now style, is an approach I have discovered in Japan. I don’t mean that people don’t ignore each other in Australia; they definitely do. This silence I’m talking about is somehow a different kind.

I write this in the context of having recently done a ‘conversation test’ with 120 Japanese students. Students were supposed to try to keep a conversation going by continuing to talk after answering a question, and then asking a question of their own, to whose answer they could say stuff like ‘Wow,’ ‘Really?’ or ‘Oh, I see.’ So said conversation was supposed to go like this (Student’s lines are as suggested by the Japanese Teacher of English):

BJ (that’s me): Good morning/afternoon, Student.

S: Good morning, BJ.

BJ: How are you today?

S: I’m fine, thank you, and you?

BJ: I’m great, thank you. I have a question for you…

(Here I got to ask a random question, painstakingly crafted out of the language covered in class.)

BJ: How many brothers and sisters do you have?

(Here the student should answer the question and then give some more information, as in a real conversation.)

S: I have one sister. She likes volleyball.

BJ: Oh, that’s nice.

S: Do you like volleyball?

BJ: Yes, but I can’t play volleyball very well.

S: Oh, I see.

BJ: OK, thank you! You may go back.

S: Thank you very much! See you.

Timer: *beep beep beep beep*

Students got more marks if they used ‘reactions’ for communicating, like ‘Pardon?’ or ‘Wow’ and had good manners and made eye contact. They also got marks for answering the question and talking beyond that.

For many reasons, including lack of conversation practice, stage fright, and especially lack of conversation practice using whatever particular words I chose, some students didn’t understand their question. Some did well here by asking, ‘Pardon?’ or repeating part of the question they didn’t understand, so I could rephrase it for them. Some bombed spectacularly in their answers:

BJ: What is your favourite food?

S: Yes, I do.

…and some echoed back at me:

BJ: What do you do after school?

S:  After school?

But a few just stared at me or into space.

BJ: How are you?

S: I’m cold, thank you. How are you?

BJ: Good, thanks. Now, I have a question. What do you usually have for breakfast?

S: … 😐 …

(45 seconds later) *beep beep beep*

What do you make of this? Aside from ‘I’m cold, thank you,’ that is. They get taught to say thank you when someone asks how they are. As asking people how they are isn’t really an everyday thing in Japanese culture, it can be surprisingly tricky to get the hang of it. I have been trying to train this year’s batch of kids not to say ‘fine’ because of its sociolinguistic connotations, you know, how young people these days don’t actually say ‘I’m fine, thank you, and you?’

But what do you think of the silence?

It’s really, really foreign to me, and though I understand that in this case, they are probably just sitting there waiting for their time to run out because they decided before walking in that they were going to fail, when I’m in the situation with a kid staring at me defiantly, resignedly, miserably, however they’re doing it as the clock ticks, it feels strange. Wouldn’t you feel uncomfortable in this situation?

Sometimes the expression looks a bit like this. Image: this movie

Sometimes the expression looks a bit like this. If you’re not familiar with anime, the drop of sweat is a sign of feeling awkward/under pressure. Image: this movie

There are a couple of reasons I can identify for this discomfiture. One seems obvious, right: it’s rude not to respond when someone is directly trying to interact with you. I’m pretty sure this is also true in Japan, at least in casual social interaction. The other reason I find this so weird is that these kids could get themselves points on the test by saying ‘Pardon?’ or ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know’ or ‘New question please?’ or anything at all, over the silence they choose. It may be that they’re frozen in terror and their mouth won’t work, but I think they’re just committed to failure. Which is sad, if they’ve given up on English already, at twelve years old, with another 5 years of it ahead of them at school.

At least as often as in speaking tests, I see students refuse to answer when directly asked a question by their teachers in class. This is quite painful to watch. It goes like this. By the way, teachers refer to students by their surnames in Japan.

Teacher: And what did the ghost say then? Mr Tanaka, please tell us.

Tanaka (standing): …

(10 seconds later) …

(40 students are still waiting) …

Teacher: Mr Tanaka?

Tanaka: …

Teacher: All right, if you don’t know, you can sit down. Would someone help here?

(Tanaka sits down shamefaced)

Why, Japanese people? What is so wrong with admitting you don’t know? I know there’s a horror about making a mistake, but is this really preferable? Is there some kind of honour in refusing to admit defeat? Even though you are holding the class up? And it’s clear you don’t know the answer anyway?

(bangs head on desk)

One of the strangest things about this silence is that it seems reserved for occasions when there’s some sort of social pressure. Nobody hesitates to say ‘Dunno’ if it’s a question like ‘Where’s my umbrella?’ And if there’s not so much tension in the room, plenty of students asked questions whose answers they don’t know will openly ask the person next to them, or look at that person’s worksheet, and then tell that answer to the classroom. Again, I probably mentioned in an education post that there doesn’t seem to be as much concern with understanding the ins and outs of what you’re doing here as there is with having the right answer, however you got it. Then again, there might be heaps of people in Australia who also don’t care about understanding how the language/formula/whatever works and just want the right answer so they can move on – I can only vouch for myself.

Outside of educational contexts, I understand silence in place of a verbal response a bit more, and the type you see outside educational contexts is what you’re more likely to see in anime or Japanese movies. It can be a bit like the kind of silence that you get from a dog who has chewed holes in your socks. I used this technique for the first time last year; not deliberately, but found myself at a loss for words which continued for several seconds and then realised, ‘Ah, maybe this is why people do that thing where they don’t say anything,’ and though it didn’t sit well with me, I still couldn’t find anything to say that wouldn’t do more damage than had already been done. So I didn’t say anything. It’s not that I wasn’t acknowledging the question – there was just no adequate way to respond.

It’s not always from shame, but often something like shame, I think. Surprise or shock, or some kind of embarrassment can bring it about too.

'Wow, your finger is so skinny! What size is it?' 'Hm, is he going to give me a ring?' Image: some women's magazine

Man: ‘Wow, your finger is so skinny! What size is it?’
Woman (thinking): Are you going to give me a ring?
Image: this women’s magazine

Maybe all of this is just me being really Western and placing too much importance on words. I think it’s not just Australia, but English-speaking culture – and French, from what I know – that likes things to be verbalised, especially when the thing asking for a reaction is verbal. Japanese culture kind of prides itself on ‘reading the atmosphere;’ there’s a phrase for not being able to do it: ‘K.Y.’ It stands for kuuki yomenai, 空気読めない、’can’t read air.’ It’s kind of like considering someone a bit clumsy/mentally or socially challenged, if they are KY, and most people are not considered KY. So maybe when someone doesn’t answer a question, you are supposed to read the air and know the answer from whether the person looks happy, embarrassed, confused, or whatever.

Would you find this kind of silence golden, awkward, or something else?

* I know question marks are supposed to go inside the inverted commas, but when the question is not part of what’s being said, it just doesn’t seem right to me. For any pedants reading. Yes, that may well be you, Bron, Evan, Margie, etc.