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Tokyo Podcast 39: The Return of Sachi
Ruth Jarman Shiraishi’s new book 日本人が世界に誇れる３３のこと (33 More Reasons To Be Proud) was written for Japanese people about their actions that seem ordinary to them, yet are significantly different from the American culture that the author grew up in.
The habits and customs that are not considered special by the Japanese are listed as the wonderful assets of this country by Ruth. She has lived and worked in Japan for over the last 24 years, and her love for Japan comes across throughout this book. She shares the findings from her experiences, particularly from the traditional Japanese business scenes. She sees the passion of Japanese people in their modest, self controlled calm acts, and also the strong bond and thinking as a team over that of an individual’s.
What does the silence mean in a meeting? Why does it take longer for Japanese business people to give you an yes? Why do you hardly hear car horn in Japan? Ruth talks about how she found the reasons behind these acts that are at times difficult to understand by foreigners.
This book is written in Japanese for Japanese people to let them notice the nice things they should be more proud of. I am Japanese, and have studied and worked outside of Japan for over a decade. I am the opposite of Ruth who grew up in the US and came to Japan to study and work in that I grew up in Japan but have worked most of my career outside Japan. It was refreshing and also relieving to read that someone from a different culture can find this many good things in the Japanese everyday practices. This is not just Japan, but it is often too easy to take things for granted when we live in one place for a long time. Living abroad can be exciting, but it comes with a plenty of hurdles, including the language barrier and culture shocks.
Because Ruth has been here in Japan for a long time, she has seen some changes in Japanese people with globalization. A nice example she brought up was that she is seeing more smiles toward foreigners in Japan today. When she first came to Japan, the store and street signs did not have as many English writing as now. Not knowing the Japanese language yet, she had to ask things around in English. At times, a Japanese man would reply, “This is a pen!” and walk away. Ruth, puzzled by this reaction, later found out that it was one of the very first sentences that Japanese students learn in their English lesson, and that Japanese people were very nervous and shy about speaking English. Such shyness and “foreigner allergy” that she used to see before is seen much less today, and she is finding more smiles back to her instead of her seeing their back.
Her nice reminders continue throughout the book, with such topics as people’s high moral standard that can be seen in forgotten goods, wallets and cash being turned in as a norm, even in these times when economy isn’t exactly booming. Another example was the spotless cleanliness of public spaces that are maintained by the collective acts of most people. This is not to say that Japan is perfect, but Ruth is shining spotlight on all these things that we, Japanese, don’t pay attention to as something to be proud of. She understands that too, and the culture that values modesty can actually use her written appreciation to gain some confidence that it deserves.
Her thorough understanding of Japanese language have allowed her to observe and understand the customs and practices that are overlooked by its own people, and indeed should be more cherished.
Sachiko Takao cycled her way from Okinawa to Hokkaido sampling the many delicious foods that Japan has to offer. She documented her journey on her website Findind Sachi.