What I knew before the trip

Memories and notes of an European, first time in Japan, written or rewritten one year after the trip.

In my academic times, my first lecture I was commissioned to was about transnational corporations. My knowledge about Japanese business conduct and keiretsu (complex interlocking among companies) was quite comprehensive. But did I know anything useful about Japan and the Japanese society? The answer is – rather nothing.


Obviously these were words and vague impressions on geisha (and kimono), shogun and samurai and the tradition of seppuku, a kind of ritual honorary suicide. My comprehension of the latter was a bit wider as some time ago I read memories of a kamikaze, a Japanese pilot who committed to perform a suicide flight to destroy an enemy object during WWII, but ultimately never got the order. Today, shogun and samurai are words describing the Japanese past (unless you think of shogun and samurai bonds, but these are only funky ways to quickly distinguish kinds of securities). But the tradition of geisha is well-preserved and maintained.

Post Scriptum: Japanese nouns are only singular. This was also new to my.

Learning Japan and the Japanese culture.

Seen in Gion, the traditional geisha district of Kyoto

Of things we learned quite quickly, was however that Japanese men and women are indeed accustomed to wear traditional clothing. These are obviously not the most elegant (or complicated) kinds of kimonos that traditionally consist of many layers. Those are worn by geishas or during festivities >>>. But a simpler form of a kimono, called yukata is worn as a kind of casual dress both by women and men. And there are the geta, traditional Japanese sandals. Unlike in the Western culture, the sandals are worn with socks. The socks are manufactured so that they fit geta, with the big toe and the remaining toes separated.

Learning Japan and the Japanese culture.

Japanese teenagers wearing yukata and geta


Among my work colleagues I had two, who spent some time in Japan. One of them used to live there for two years working at one of the Japanese universities. Of messages he conveyed to me one was very straight. Japanese were or are shy of foreigners. If there is a white person in the train even if it is crowded inside they would keep the distance. This one I cannot confirm any way. As my colleague was in Japan more than a decade ago, I can imagine things changed. The Japanese travel much, and there are more and more tourists, who visit Japan. The relations with international community are no more uncommon. What is more, Japanese people seemed to us very forthcoming. A couple of times we were approached by Japanese, who either realised we needed assistance not being able to understand the communiques in their language or just asked us where we came from and what were our impressions of Japan. Only once I saw a European regarded with some discontent. He was loudly speaking on the phone in a metro train. To my observation, Japanese use their cells in public transport by sending messages or surfing in the internet, but avoid speaking out loud.


The other message was that Japanese were very clean people and there is no vandalism in the streets. This is absolutely true. I remembered him talking about a conversation with a Japanese colleague. He pointed out paper advertisements hanging in a train telling him, that in the most European countries they would be someday torn by more or less drunk guys. His colleague asked him a simple question: ‘What for?’ If I had to point out things the Western societies could learn from the Japanese, this would be it.

Learning Japan and the Japanese culture.

Inside a local train. It was quite quiet inside. The exception would be late evening trains carrying crowds of the Japanese, who enjoyed the night life in Shinjuku (a Tokyo district). The paper advertisements are absolutely in tact.


Just before our trip, I was also warned by a female friend, a fan of the Japanese culture, who visited Japan several times, not to wear deep décolletage. ‘Your skirt may be as short as you wish’, she said, ‘but do not take some of the summer cloths you wear here at home’. This was not confirmed by our guide, a young male, graduate of Japanese culture studies, but I listened to the advice. I can confirm however the short skirts and covered necklines. My both colleagues also observed that the Japanese wear more decent clothing that we here at home, but the things are of good quality. The notion of elegance in Japan is different from that in Europe. It is more about aesthetics, cleanness and taking care. My female colleague once told me: ‘No matter how much I tried, as I compared myself to the women I sat with in public transport, I always felt messier. They were so decently spruce.’ Yet another thing I can confirm. But there was another thing out of the female world I realised in Japan, nobody told me before. These were the Japanese cosmetics, to be exact the quality of cosmetics that you can buy in Japan. If I had to come back to this country, I would take only small quantities to live through a day or so, and buy me things I need on spot. And, I would plan in some additional time to shop more at the end of the journey, to be able to pack it into the main luggage.

The other advice was ‘smile and nod when you ask for something and you thank for something. This would help you, even if your Japanese interlocutor speaks no English’. The latter turned out to be absolutely true.

JMA, May 2017