I have visited Japan once before, in 2015. I spent a week each in Tokyo and Kyoto, and thought that I had seen enough to have a grasp on Japanese culture and every day life from experiencing it through tourist attractions and popular museums and shrines, even thought I took a taxi everywhere with my family. The first week of this program has taught me just how wrong I was.
By walking down side alleys, taking the train every day, and letting myself get lost in the city, I think that there was a lot about Japan that I didn't know before. The way of life I’ve observed in these past few days is so different from what I experience in America. It’s easy to think that everyone in the world desires diversity over homogeneity, or at least individualism over community when you are raised in a nation that indoctrinates those beliefs into you through its media and school system. Japan contradicts this way of thinking completely due to ancient tradition, yet still houses a cut-throat workplace culture whose workers value loyalty to their companies so highly that they’ll put everything—a good night’s sleep, time with family, or even gender equality—on the line in order to succeed.
Politeness and silence are the norm, even though sidewalks and trains can be packed with people. Apologies still abound at the world’s largest pedestrian intersection, Shibuya Crossing, when two people darting across the street happen to brush elbows. Thank-you’s and excuse-me’s make up most of the chatter you hear.
However, it’s important to note that the Japanese are still people; this became most obvious to me when waiting for the Yamanote line at Shibuya Station on a Friday night, just an hour before the last train. The commuters’ composed moods of the morning and afternoon had gone out the window after alcohol started flowing. As I was pushed onto the train by a sea of people scrambling (and stumbling) to get home, I stood in awe as the train erupted into laughter, yelling, and smiles. Bodies pressed against bodies were no longer demanding of apologies; the work week was done, and so was the characteristic Japanese etiquette. Salarymen were throwing up in platform trashcans, young couples were making out next to ticket gates. The scene didn’t seem too different from Greek Row back in Seattle. Usually, being pressed against dozens drunk strangers would annoy me, and certainly wouldn't make me smile. But this was so shocking to me, so against everything I've seen about Japan in the media (and on the train during the day), that I couldn't help but revel in the short-lived time of the day when we all seemed the same.
The variance in the behavior of the people of Tokyo is what is most amazing to me. There is a constant pull between composure and boisterousness, just like the architecture of the city is torn between ancient and ultramodern. Efficiency is the key attribute of Japanese infrastructure, but gardens, parks, and tea ceremonies prove that the concept of zen and reflection is also highly important in daily Japanese life. One night I stumbled upon a traditional neighborhood festival, and the next night I was getting lost in an almost futuristic skyscraper district with thousands of people crossing the streets around me at once.
I could sit here and describe every museum or neighborhood I’ve visited, or how many different kinds of vending machine milk tea I’ve tried, but at the end of the day, what is most impactful to me is the street-level view I’ve had of what daily life in Japan is like. Nothing you read online will show you the dynamic mannerisms or behaviors of people, no matter which city you want to learn about. Only standing outside and watching people walk under the neon at 8am, 1pm, and 10pm will give you an idea of what it means to live in Tokyo. It’s never just about politeness, or working hard, or praying to a Shinto deity. For Japanese people, all of these things interact and balance themselves seamlessly between hours, seasons, and even generations.