Still Clueless (1/2)


Prior to coming to Tokushima to study calligraphy earlier this year, I had lived in Japan on four separate occasions. With more than three years of experience under my belt, I figured my grasp of Japanese culture was pretty solid, and didn’t expect any real surprises this time around. Having been here for just four months now, I’ve already seen this assumption get proven wrong twice (and counting).

It was pure arrogance to assume that my knowledge of Japanese culture was somehow comprehensive (or even could be), but especially considering the narrow scope of my previous experience. I was unable to communicate beyond caveman grunts for most of it, and my contact with Japanese people my own age was all but nonexistent. Working as an assistant English teacher, most of the people I met were either students or teachers, so everyone was either ten years old, or in their fifties.

This time around I’m in a university setting, so I’m surrounded by people my own age (actually most of them are five or ten years younger than me, but as I’m a cartoonist & blogger, it’s probably safe to assume we’re at about the same maturity level). And my Japanese is just starting to approach the level where I can actually make friends with people who don’t know any English. So I’m getting a glimpse of Japan I didn’t have access to before, leading to the two before-mentioned instances of mini-culture shock.

The first one being…

The Militaristic Seniority System
Long before experiencing the real thing, my introduction to Japanese university life came in the form of anime & manga. The neon-haired, saucer-eyed character designs did little to assure me that these stories were in any way accurate portrayals of Japanese college life, and I took everything in them with a grain of salt.

So whenever a character would refer to an upperclassman as “Yamada-san” or whatever, I always assumed that this, like the character designs, was an exaggeration; a blunt attempt to paint the speaker as shy and overly polite. Never did I actually imagine that people in their teens and twenties would unironically refer to each other as “Mr./Mrs. So-and-so”, especially in this day and age.

Upon arriving at Shikoku University, however, I learned my assumption was wrong. Underclassmen duly refer to upperclassmen in polite forms that I would hesitate to use in the States unless I was meeting the president or something. I’m starting to get used to it now, but it’s still sort of weird to see a freshmen refer to a sophomore as Mr. Lastname, or hearing Mr. Lastname giving the freshmen a dressing down for some infraction. I mean, I could understand it if Mr. Lastname was middle-aged or something, but the age/life experience difference between a freshman and a sophomore is just a matter of a few months. Seeing that level of deference among peers is like watching a fraternity hazing ritual or something.

The big question for me was where I fit in the food chain. I’m older than most of the students, but have much less experience in calligraphy. A classmate helpfully summed it up by saying “Age trumps all”. So most of my fellow students (even friends) call me “Lars-san”, and I can call them by just their name, or by attaching a friendly suffix to their name like “chan” or “kun”. Which situations I can/should use those opens up a whole other can of worms altogether. I’m still trying to figure that one out…

The other cultural thing that surprised me, involving attitudes towards dating, will the subject of next weeks entry.

  • MH

    Since you wonder out loud, I will share my opinion. For what it is worth, I am your sempai (you little shit!), since I am older plus this is my 17th year in Japan. Next year, it will have been in Japan for about the same amount of time as my freshman students (yeah, I am an English teacher, as well as other things).

    Attaching -san for upper-classmates is simply just a custom. It absolutely does not reflect genuine respect. A popular freshman can easily be more respected than a dorky 4th year student.

    The general public uses this custom just as a rule, but once you are familiar with a person, you can call them anything that fits. For example, my wife, who is 32, met a female business associate of mine, who is 42. She called her Tanaka-san at first. The two hit it off and have become friends, they go out sometimes to see movies and have coffee. Now Tanaka-san is just plain old Kaori.

    Addressing somebody with a -san just means you grew up right. There was a bit of a fuss when the Kameda boxer family boys wouldn’t use -san for anybody. This is more of a reflection of their up-bringing than of any real respect issues. Most college students are smart enough to know that you can’t go around calling upperclass students with anything else except -san, unless you look like a punk tough guy or some kind of egotistical jerk (which is the best way NOT to succeed in the dating department, your next issue!).

    As far as where you fit in, and this may come as a shock…you don’t. You never will. You may wind up staying here for 50 years, speak perfect Japanese and be able to fart Kimi ga yo in the sento, but you will still be outside of the cultural system. Once you start to wonder where you fit in, you may start feeling pissed off about things. You seem to be a real nice guy, but it can get annoying when you do make in-roads but you are still treated as if you just walked off the plane.

    Of course, if you do stay here a long time, you will have your own circle of friends and maybe family and you will be treated just like everybody else. You may even be called Lars-chan if it works for you. I have many guy friends who prefer -chan, not -kun. Most folks just drop the

    Once you figure this out, you next step is the whole Ore, Boku, Watashi, Washi and then Omae, Kimi, Anata, Anta. That is much more of a mind bender, in my opinion.

    Anyway, I am starting to ramble now. I am sure you will figure it out.

    Sorry for such a long winded comment.

  • Lars Martinson

    Hello MH-san:

    Thanks for the comment! Very illuminating!

    Yeah, actually I have noticed from time to time what you mention about the formalities being observed despite a clear lack of any actual respect; there’s a freshman at my school that is very diligent about using the correct form of address even as he relentlessly teases the upperclassmen.

    And then regarding Ore, Boku, Watashi, Washi (the different ways for men to say “I”, for those that don’t know), yeah, that one still bothers me. In most cases, Watashi feels too polite, Ore feels too arrogant, Boku feels too childish, Washi is only for old men… nothing really strikes me as a good fit for me. I use a mix of them (heavy on the Watashi out of habit), but I’m never quite comfortable with any of them, and long for the simplicity of the English “I”. Maybe I should start using Jibun? Bah…

    If you have any thoughts regarding the next installment when it goes up, yoroshiku onegaishimasu. Though I feel a little self-conscious about posting it now that I know someone who actually knows what they’re talking about is reading it. *Cough*…


  • Nubus

    Don’t feel self-conscious. Your posts are still good to any audience you have back home and a refreshing reminder to some of us living here in Japan. Keep on posting! Thanks for sharing your experience(s) with your readers.

  • Eugene

    This is only my experience, but it seems like this practice tends to vary somewhat regionally as well. I have friends from Aomori and Kumamoto who tend to adhere more strictly to the rules of the hierarchy you mention, where as the city folk don’t seem to care so much.

    I was being called ‘omae’ by younger friends from Tokyo shortly after I started hanging out with them, which left me wondering if I should be offended. Turns out they just don’t pay as much mind to such formalities.

    I’ve also found that, while it’s completely weird for us Westerners not to use personal pronouns to begin sentences, they’re omitted from Japanese colloquial speech more often than not, or tacked on to the end of sentences as an afterthought, unlike the proper grammar we’re taught in classrooms. It all makes things very confusing, if you ask me.

    Jitsu wa, sappari wakannai, ore wa.

  • Hi Lars,

    I am looking for Monbusho scholarship. I really want to be there in Japan and study about the culture. how can I get that scholarship?

    I am a masters candidate in International Islamic University of Malaysia. My thesis is about the comparative literature between Malay and Arabic literates. My field of studies is Arabic Literary. But you know, I am looking for the new culture and literature and I have chose Japan as my next field of research (as I am a cray fan of Japanese songs and movies, hehe).

    Can you inform me tru my e-mail?? please?

    regards: Fatihah. ARIGATO’

  • Lars Martinson

    Hello Fatihah,

    I wrote a series of blog entries about applying for the Monbusho Scholarship, the first of which can be found here:

    Those four entries pretty much contain all the thoughts I have on the subject, so take a look at them. Though I don’t know how useful they are for people applying outside the USA…

    Anyway, good luck!