In Japan last April, cherry blossoms in full bloom and crowds snapping photos, I was more struck by cultural differences than I have been in perhaps any other country. Maybe because I wasn’t expecting it to be that different. Certainly more focused on relationship-building in business than I was used to, probably with more ritual around certain things Westerners (or at least Americans) tend to rush through. But Japan has never seemed, in theory, to be all that foreign. Foreignness, apparently, in my mind, has to do with how developed a country is and how familiar the economic system, price tags for a meal, traffic laws. All the rest of it, cultural nuance and so on, is to be expected when you go to a new place and is therefore not all that strange.
I wasn’t expecting the cultural nuance to be so all-encompassing, hampering my ability to do things I would normally do in an unfamiliar city. Starting with crossing the street. I felt like an outlaw from the rough and ready Wild West because I would cross the street if there was no traffic instead of waiting patiently for the light to change like everyone else. I tried climbing a tree to see a parade, something that would garner laughter and a few compliments where I’m from (“Good thinking!”) only to be fished out by a very polite policeman.
I started wandering around with my own personal translator-cultural interpreter, pestering him with questions: what’s that place? Why are those service people bowing to that blank wall when they walk in and out of the door? Is that dancing video billboard advertising conversations with hip, clean-cut Japanese boys? It is? No, no, I’m not interested.
I learned a lot in a short timespan.
With any luck, this issue on Asia will also challenge your assumptions and lead you to discover new things, elucidated by your own translators and cultural interpreters.