For anyone who wants to learn how to live in Japan, what better teacher than Einstein? It sounds like a strange pairing, but in the shadow of his accomplishments, it’s easy to forget that one of the greatest minds of the 20th century was an expat. We often think Einstein’s philosophies developed solely from his work as a scientist, but living abroad for most of his life doubtlessly helped shape the figure who gave us E=mc2.
“There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as if everything is a miracle.”
The greatest lure of living in Japan is that every day is a minor adventure, another note to jot down in the field journal of an exotic, foreign land. Tourists can gain horizontal knowledge of a place, exhausting as much ground as possible before heading home. But living in Japan means knowing it vertically. You’re a cultural anthropologist. Through and through, you know your territory better than the Japanese. Because you’re not Japanese, you can still see the little things they numbly walk over without a second thought. For Japanese it’s life as usual, but for you it’s magic. And should you ever lose that, it’s time to pack up and go back home because the only difference between here and there is a language barrier.
“The only source of knowledge is experience”
The first time you walk down a street in Japan it’s the unknown. The second time its a street. With all of Japan whispering “come and see,” it’s just fear holding you back from charting the undiscovered land outside your door. Fear of…what? Going outside? Making a mistake? Getting it right?
It’s fear of changing. Changing, not change. As I’ve said before, when you move abroad you’re putting your very identity on the line on the gamble you’ll come out the other end of your grand adventure better than when you started. You have to change. Or rather have to be changed–or Japan will chew you up and spit you back out because you’re a stubborn goat. Or at the very least you’ll spend your time here as a square peg crammed inside a round hole.
When you live in Japan you need to be a tiny Christopher Columbus, ready to cast off and plant a flag in the dirt. Stitching some experiences together into your own personal territory is the only way you’ll ever get any traction. How do you live in Japan? By getting your hands dirty. By putting your feet on the ground and making it your own. Because until it is, it isn’t.
“Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.”
Love for your country is a fine thing. Wave your national flag–by all means. Just do it respectfully. You won’t make any friends by declaring Japan inferior to your own country, even among fellow countrymen. They’re living in Japan because they want to, for reasons that don’t include listening to you go on about your country’s superiority like some fizzy, patriotic fountain.
Being from the United States, I grew up hearing “America is the greatest country in the world.” But, I don’t think so. The U.S. is a great country in the world, but no country is the greatest. When you live in Japan, try not to compare cultures except to distinguish differences. Your way is just one way, not the only way.
“Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.”
If you don’t want people staring at you like you’ve got an elf on your head, you have to lay a new foundation. Things are different here, and not just manners or customs. To give you an example, I was recently talking with a Japanese friend about suicide. When I mentioned it was more socially acceptable in Japan due, in part, to the practice of seppuku (ritualistic suicide,) he was thunderstruck.
“You know, I never really thought of seppuku as suicide before. Of course it is suicide–but…I never really realized it until you said so.”
Another example, the word “ankle.” It’s English etymology means “hinge,” but in Japanese it’s 足首/ashikubi, “leg neck.” While the Japanese certainly also conceptualize an ankle as a joint, language is our brain’s O.S.. Trying to run a Mac program on a PC just won’t work
I recently went to Tokyo Disneyland. On the Jungle Safari a woman was standing a bit too close to the gate when the staff was closing it.
“Oshiriwo kiotsukete,” she said. Be careful about your butt. That would elicit at the very least a laugh in English, but was perfectly normal in Japanese.
How to live in Japan? Understand that even normal things can be very different. Common sense doesn’t always apply where culture is concerned.
“Its should be possible to explain the laws of physics to a barmaid”
There are good communicators and there are bad communicators. Then their are great ones. Some people can explain anything with only 10 words in another language because they understand it isn’t just about language–it’s about communicating. There are some boundaries that just can’t be crossed without a firm grasp of Japanese, but they’re fewer than you think. I’ve negotiated two apartment contracts with only limited Japanese. You’ll be amazed what you can make someone understand with only a few words, gestures, and an internet dictionary. When you live in Japan, you have to be a good communicator.
Judging from Einstein describing the Japanese as “wonderful people,” I’m sure he got along well with them during his short visit to Japan. His international celebrity status would certainly have made any trip go smoothly, but his experience as an expat no doubt played a hand. You might say that living abroad successfully is a skill. And though Einstein may have never lived in Japan, he definitely knew how to.