14 Shok-King-Gu Things About Japan

Brian and I in our hostel room in Yokohama, Japan. The room was listed as "for two", but the two twin sized futon (behind us) did not fit side-by-side when laid out.
Last week, I attended an 宴会 (an enkai, or fine dining and unlimited drinks party) with my coworkers.
Co-worker: April-sensei, when you came to Japan, what was the ichibanshokinggu thing for you?
Me: Uh... sorry, what's ichibanshokkinggu?
He looked troubled for a moment as he looked around for another co-worker to help translate for me. When he couldn't find anyone, he pointed to the menu on the wall, then his chopsticks, then soy sauce, then the raw chicken sashimi on our tiny fancy dinner plates.
Me: Oh! Ichiban "shocking"?
Co-worker: Yes, yes! Most shok-king-gu about Japan.Me: Uh... everything.
I really didn't have the heart to tell him all the shok-king-gu things about Japan that have been on my mind lately. If I did, he'd be getting a healthy dose of Culture Shocked, Debby Downer-framed Japanese culture observations... in the form of the following (let's call this list Why, Japan, Why??):

Why, Japan, Why??: 14 Gripes of a Foreigner in Japan
1. Rules posted f*cking everywhere. I counted 35 different rules posted at various train stations on a trip to Tokyo. Alongside the usual caution (or rather, common sense) notices for your own safety were warnings against putting on makeup in public, chatting annoyingly to your friends, public displays of affection with your S.O., music playing too loudly on your headphones, how to hold your backpack correctly while standing on the train, and on and on. So many rules..! 
Why, Japan, why?! 
The Upside: If you want peace and quiet nearly everywhere you go, you've got it.

2. Not being able to snack anywhere, lest you appear rude or uncivilized. Eating while walking or out and not at a restaurant is a no-no here. I don't understand how people can go without food between breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I just want to eat my whole, uncut, shiny apple, damnit! 
Why can't I eat my apple, Japan, why can't I?? 
The Upside: Um. None. I'm hungry. 

3. Not being able to hear or understand what people are saying because they are wearing a surgical mask.  Somehow, they all seem to be perfectly fine understanding each other, though. 
What, Japan, whaaaat?? 
The Upside: Socially-conscious, germy individuals may have possible saved me from a cold or two. 

4. Stiff and formal opening ceremonies, closing ceremonies, graduation ceremonies, sports awards ceremonies... heck, ceremonies. 
Sit, stand, bow, sit. Stand, bow. Nudge the guy who's nodded off nearly onto your lap. Stand, bow. Listen to speech after speech after speech. Stand in arrow-straight files and sing the school song. Sit. Kneel. Stand. File out. 
The Upside: Kids are shockingly well-behaved at school assemblies. It's mind-blowing... and kind of eerie. 

5. The timeless tradition of lamenting on the weather being too hot or too cold, depending not on the temperature, but on the time of year. October-April: "Cold". May-September: "Hot". 
I sometimes attempt an opening serve of "ii tenki desu ne" ('nice weather we're having today, doncha think?') but am still hit with a "unn, chotto... demo samui desu nee?" on the return ('yeah I guess, but it sure is cold, isn't it?'). 
No, it isn't that cold Japan, it isn't!!!! 
The Upside: It's really, really, really easy to make small talk with a Japanese person even as a limited-Japanese-speaking foreigner. 

6. So. Much. Plastic. So. Much. Styrofoam.  
Gifts wrapped in layers of cellophane. Cookies wrapped in plastic, on a a plastic tray, each individually wrapped in (duh) plastic. To-go containers. Instant ramen bowls. Convenience stores separating your warm food from your cold food from your non-food items in different plastic bags. (Granted, the Bay Area was one of the more diligent places in the world about cutting down on plastic and styrofoam, so I am a bit biased. I guess.) 
Stop, Japan, stop!!!! 
The Upside: Individually-wrapped cookies means my co-workers are constantly giving me small gifts of cookies, snacks, and candies. 

7. Doing things out of officially established routine despite it being at an inconvenient time or date or weather.  
December 1st is when we are allowed to start heating the classrooms. Now, winter moves in at the beginning of November and the kids and teachers are all freezing their bums off, but this silly little fact doesn't matter--it's not yet time to start using the heaters. Then, in Spring, everyone squirms in their stuffy ties and long-sleeved uniforms until we are finally told, yes, you may now start coming to work in weather-appropriate dress. 
Each year, one or more holidays falls on a Tuesday, or a Wednesday, or a Thursday, but instead of observing the holiday on the nearest Monday or Friday, everyone just skips work (and stays home? has a one-day, out-of-town trip?) in the middle of the week. 
Worse yet, if the holiday falls on a Saturday or a Sunday, we just don't get holiday off that year. 
This makes no sense, Japan, none at all!!!!!! 
The Upside: All high school students in Japan can share in the anticipation of their graduation on March 1, and not a day later, regardless of what day of the week it falls on. Also, I suppose back home, Christmas is always on the 25th, unlike roving holidays like Thanksgiving and Easter, so the idea of a holiday being fixed is not totally foreign. 

8. Doing things out of officially established routine rather than purpose.  
Like waking up at 7am twice a year to pull weeds in our apartment block's parking lot for an hour. Do we clear all the weeds? No. But we stop pulling after an hour anyway, because, well, pulling weeds time is officially over and hey, I don't make the rules. Do we do anything to prevent the weeds from coming back? No, of course not. Because then what would we do in six months from now, when it's time to pull weeds for an hour.?
Or cleaning classrooms and offices and hallways at school for twenty minutes to an hour at least once a day (yes, sometimes two times in the day). This sounds like an excellent idea in theory, but in practice, students and teachers don't use cleaning chemicals (only water and old, dirty rags) and there aren't enough brooms or tasks to go around, so everyone just ends up taking turns pushing dust back and forth. The toilets always remain filthy. 
Or public school teachers coming to work despite there being no students because it's summer break or no classes because of your schedule that day. Day in and day out, we're required by contract to come in from 7 to 8 hours a day, some staying longer in order to save face and maintain a reputation of being a dedicated employee, No. Matter. What (unless we want to use paid leave days). Every day, I see teachers at their desk playing solitaire, on Facebook, or reading manga. I blog. Here I am, blogging right now. The teacher next to me is asleep at his chair with his mouth wide open. 
We're wasting time, Japan, precious time!!!! 
The Upside: Cleaning and weeding regularly and superficially is better than not doing it at all. Also, Japan's streets are way cleaner than the streets back home. 

9. Not being able to order take-out at a restaurant.  Sometimes, I just want to eat a restaurant's delicious food without having to choose between smoking or directly-next-to-smoking seating. 
My hair smells like smoke, Japan... like smoke!!!! 
The Upside: I've forced myself to cook a lot more if I want to eat at home rather than trekking to the nearest restaurant in sweatpants and slippers--or worse, calling for delivery. 

10. The lack of road safety practices for and by cyclists. Helmets are generally only worn by junior high school students and professional cyclists. My city does not have bike lanes--cyclists zip through already crowded sidewalks and narrow streets. As far as I can tell, right of way is not given by drives to cyclists. 
Why isn't it, Japan, why isn't it??? 
The Upside: Despite biking being terrifying out here, a LOT of people of all ages regularly bike to work and school and to run errands. Bike theft, though among the most common of crimes committed in Japan, is less of a worry here than back home. Many people forgo the U-lock, the extra chain for their front wheel, or even chaining their bike to a stationary structure at all. Basic bicycles are also super cheap. 

11. The lack of trash cans out in public. Which reminds me, I have some plastic wrappers to clear out of my backpack and jacket pockets. 
The Upside: People here are really good about not littering despite the absence of trash receptacles. 

12. The lack of soap, paper towels, or even washing up after using the public toilet at all.  There are industrial sized bottles of anti-bacterial everywhere (sometimes even in place of soap) and all kinds of wet towels to use before having a meal, but not enough soap! 
That's gross, Japan, and so dirty!! 
The Upside: I found a nifty little packet of "soap sheets"--little squares of paper-ized soap that look like Listerine sheets to carry around in my purse. When I reacted with surprise and delight at such an innovation, my Japanese friend was surprised that I'd never seen such a common modern day convenience. 

13. People talking with their mouth full of food.  I never realized that to not do so is a culture-specific manner. 
I like seafood, Japan, but not see-food!!!!!!!!!
The Upside: Such a habit is reserved for rice and noodles, and not done with certain foods like soup. I think. 

14. Chocolate flavored-looking snacks are usually bean flavored sweets.  Just as I excitedly take a huge bite out of what I thought would be sweet, dark, creamy, rich, goodness--beans. Gets me every time, man. 
Beans again, Japan, beans again?!?! 
The Upside: Japan has some high quality dark chocolate in their cheap, last-minute-purchase candy aisle (Ghana, baby, all day everyday). Way better than American Hershey's, Snickers, Butterfinger, Mars bars, and all that. 
No matter where you go, cultural differences take some getting used to--others we may never get used to (or don't want to get used to). In the grand scheme of things, 14 irksome habits is no reason to up and leave my new, temporary home. It's important to be able to vent once in a while. We're only human, with our own preferences for things done a certain way. It's OK to be different, it's natural to miss things from home, and it's especially important to notice ways that things are done differently--for better or for worse.

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