It always intrigues me the differences in table manners. I’ve always had two sets, being Chinese and British, but adding in the Japanese just contributes towards it.

In Hong Kong, you pick your bowl up and shovel things into your mouth. In Japan, it is perfectly polite to leave your bowl on the table and pick up a lump of rice and put it into your mouth.

In Hong Kong, it is perfectly polite to balance your chopsticks across the top of the bowl when you’re not using them. In Japan, your chopsticks go on the table.

In Hong Kong, it is perfectly acceptable to take a bite of something you can’t fit the whole of into your mouth and then put it back down. In Japan, I see my kids using their chopsticks to cut things into sizeable chunks, never mind that this is what your teeth are for. (In the UK, you have knives and use them to cut instead.)

Just the other day, I saw a student eat her rice with a spoon, then her jelly with her chopsticks. It’s the small things that baffle me, really…

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Clear the desks

In England, we could leave whatever we wanted on our desks. In Japan, it’s all about appearances. Oftentimes, I’ll come into a classroom and the teacher will tell the kids to clear their desks. And then we’ll wait for everyone to completely clear off their desks, leaving not even a ruler or a pencil. Sure, I mostly teach oral English and we rarely do much writing in my classes, but really? The random lone pencil sitting on the top of the desk is hardly a hindrance…

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Tokyo Metro

A friend recently asked me why on earth the Tokyo Metro lines were so confusing. (My answer was actually really unhelpful, because I have used the Tokyo Metro exactly once.)

However, it’s worth noting that whilst the JR (Japan Rail) is one vast network that stretches across Japan and therefore buying tickets for it is interchangeable and easy, there are also about a million privately-owned lines, including the Tokyo Metro, which all run on their own lines and fares and rules, and a good half of them require buying new tickets between them. How does that even make sense, you ask? Well, it is also part of the reason Japan has such a well maintained railways system, so…

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Staff members

There are more staff in a Japanese school than in my UK counterparts, or at least I didn’t notice them as a child.

School Nurse resides over the school medical room. There’s usually a bed or two, medical equipment like thermometers, first aid kits, stethoscopes, etc. The school nurse also does annual health checks on the kids, with charts displaying their growth, height, weight, dental records… The school seems to have a much bigger part in a child’s healthcare than in the UK, that’s for sure.

School dietician/nutritionist makes the school menus. Often, there’s only one for the entire area, which makes sense as the school lunches every day are made in a single location and then brought round to each school in the area before lunch. Since there’s no choice in school lunch, I guess a single person is capable of working out how much nutrition/calories are in each meal for everyone.

School librarians evidently do more here than in England, because I am sitting opposite one right now. She has an enormous stack of books, and is meticulously sellotaping, glueing and otherwise patching up all the loose pages.

Special needs teachers sit next to their kids during lessons. Japan much prefers inclusion for special needs kids, so if it’s possible, they have a helper during normal lessons. Of course, solely special needs classes exist, but they tend to have all the different needs lumped together in a single class, and they also tend to join the rest of the class in as many classes as possible.

The third in charge. I don’t know what the name of this person is! There’s the principal, who primarily deals with the school’s relations with outsiders (the PTA, the Board of Education, local authorities, etc), the vice-principal who deals with the running of the school, and the person who is third in charge. They seem to do more of the day to day things, making announcements, drawing up the timetables and special events happening in a day, MCing assemblies and that sort of thing.

Tea lady. Sometimes the receptionist, but mostly someone who is literally there to make tea and coffee. Of course, for guests to the schools and people having meetings with the principal, but I have a couple of schools where the tea lady makes tea/coffee for the teachers and has it all ready for us on our desks when break time hits!

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Too settled in

I’ve clearly got to the point where I’ve been here for long enough that I’ve stopped noticing odd things about Japan anymore. Traffic lights in Japan are generally horizontal. I saw one that was vertical the other day, and had a little mental moment of ‘That’s odd!’ and then remembered that this was how all traffic lights were for the last 21 years of my life…

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The brightest star in the room

In general, the Japanese are not very fond of colour. I don’t mean that they actually dislike colour, but rather they don’t tend to wear much of it. I was on the train, wearing a pink/purple t-shirt and realised that I was the brightest person in the carriage. Everyone else was in swatches of white, cream, earth tones, pastels and muted navy.I put this down to the Japanese mentality of fitting it – it’s the done thing to be as unobtrusive as possible and it extends toward their clothes.

Aren’t Japanese people known for their crazy fashions though?! you hypothetically ask. Well, yes. However, these people are by large mostly young people – kids and students in neon colours, sometimes all of the neon colours at once; people who have no responsibilities in life yet. And that richness of colour is the Japanese equivalent of Look at me, I’m individual and rebelling. I think these days that deep purple is the brightest colour I wear.

If you travel to Japan and you are fond of wearing bright colours, you will very quickly feel out of place (even more out of place?) as you realise that you literally stand out like a house on fire.


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As far as the eye can see

I now live in a fairly big commuter town to Tokyo. I live in what is essentially the equivalent of Reading to London (soulless, has plenty of shopping centres, horrendous housing prices and very little else). And one thing that strikes me is how different it is just fifteen minutes drive out of it.

In Japan, you can shoot from major city to completely rural in about ten minutes flat. My view to work usually goes ‘buildings, buildings, RICE PADDIES. RICE PADDIES AS FAR AS YOU CAN SEE AND NOTHING ELSE.’

In fact, it’s fairly amusing because I’ll just be looking around, and see a car zipping along between the rice fields, even though it’s possibly a mile, because there’s nothing to obscure my view.

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Sing me a song

Whilst I certainly had music lessons in primary schools, I don’t remember that we did a particularly large amount of singing. In Japan, I pretty much always hear at least one or two classes of kids singing, and I recently found out that they all learn a new song every week or so, and practice first thing in the morning. It’s not even just your normal singing of kids’ songs either, it’s real singing. By which I mean, they can all read scores and sing separate parts.

When I was younger, you could barely convince me to talk in real words at 8 am, let alone harmonise.

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Gay or Japanese?

So, in England, we have a thing. We get plenty of exchange students from continental Europe coming over, and a common stereotype is ‘Gay or European’. As in, there is something in typically continental European behaviour that translates in our prim English minds as flamboyant.

I recently had a queer friend visit, and they said, somewhat petulantly, that they couldn’t tell if the men here were gay or Japanese. I knew what they meant. I’m not going into a lecture/essay on social construction of gender – many people do that better than I.

However, male behaviour in Japan is generally considered in the west to be significantly more androgynous or feminine. For example, lots of attention to style, and hair. Use of beauty products or carrying a ‘manbag’. That sort of thing. However, when you’ve been here for a while, it becomes clear that Japanese men aren’t more effeminate – just that the idea of what is masculine, feminine and androgynous is very different.

For example, boys tussle with each other all the time here, and there is little personal space just due to the mentality of people who live on a cramped island. Therefore, boys will sit in each other’s laps or grab each other inappropriately more often. (In contrast, a girl sitting on a boy’s lap is rare enough that my eyes widened one day, and students very quickly sorted themselves out, because that constitutes as PDA, and the Japanese don’t really do PDA as much.)

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Change, please?

Japan’s reliance on being a cash society is sometimes very helpful. In England, if I walked into a shop and asked if I could get change for £50, I’d probably be faced with a short pause as the cashier tried to remember if they even take £50 notes, and then be told that they can’t open the till unless I bought something anyway.

In Japan, I’d just be directed to the change machine.

Change machines are all over the place (laundromats, supermarkets, outside photobooths, on buses, near rows of gachapon machines…

The other thing is that a lot of supermarket have electronic tills now, which means that it counts and spills out your change automatically, generally making things much faster. 😀 This is especially great since no one in Japan bats an eyelid at you trying to break a 10,000yen note by buying a 100yen item, whereas I’d almost certainly be glared at in England if I tried to break a £50 note at the £shop.

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