There are many differences in communication habits between Westerners and Japanese. Having studied Japanese and East Asian culture in university, this is a topic I’ve encountered on more than one occasion (and I expect if you are reading this, it probably is for you, as well). However, learning about these differences academically and encountering them in person are very different stories. Moving to Japan and experiencing the cultural differences in my everyday life has really given me a new perspective on culture and communication in general. For Westerners who are considering living in Japan – particularly those who are looking at living in a sharehouse – there are a few things that you might want to keep in mind.
- Closed Communication: Westerners tend to be fairly open with communication. We discuss feelings, frustrations, likes and dislikes, all with ample emotion or even passion. As you may have heard, this is not so typical in Japanese culture. Most Japanese people don’t make a habit of expressing their true feelings on a topic. They usually default to “polite” communication with anyone but their closest friends. This can affect the living environment in several ways:
- No “blow-ups” – If you’ve lived with roommates in western countries, you have probably gotten into an argument or two with them, maybe even something fairly heated. When you live with primarily Japanese sharemates, you’re not likely to have the same experience. Your roommates will probably keep to themselves and not tend to exchange much more than pleasantries. You almost certainly not get into any arguments.
- Forming close relationships can be a challenge – While it may sound nice to have a roommate you never argue with, there can be downsides to the quiet nature of Japanese. You may find it difficult to break through the shyness of your housemates and to form real connections. Because communication is so closed, even Japanese can often have difficulty forming new friendships with each other as adults. Of course, there are exceptions to this generalization. Japanese with more English ability or more experience with Western culture tend to be a bit more open and approachable.
- You won’t know if your roommates are unhappy with you – Another thing to keep in mind is that where Western roommates tend to call each other out on our obnoxious behaviors, Japanese people aren’t so likely to do so. On the one hand, this means we could probably get away with exercising all of our little idiosyncrasies and never hear a word about it. However, it also means that if we want to be respectful and considerate of our housemates, we really have to practice being aware not just our own selves and our own feelings, but also how we affect the space around us.
- Personal vs. Shared Responsibilities: In the west, we have various ways of doling out shared space responsibilities such as trash, dirty dishes, cleaning, etc. You may even have grown up with such a system at home ( “Who’s turn is it to feed the dog???”), and then carried this over to living with roommates or significant others or what-have-you. However, if you share space with Japanese, you’ll find that, much like the above topics, there is little-to-no conversation regarding this topic amongst housemates. In Japan, people are expected to take responsibility for their own things, and even shared space, more or less instinctively. As members of a society in which community is valued above individuality, Japanese natives tend to have an unspoken understanding that everyone will help out. This can often be lost on westerners who are used to being asked directly to help or even given specific instructions as to their roles in a group setting, so if you’re unsure as to whether there is a system in place for shared responsibilities (some sharehouses will schedule garbage duty, etc.), be sure to ask your house manager or other housemates.
- “Bothering” Others: Here is another product of the extremely group-focused nature of Japanese society, particularly in a big crowded city like Tokyo. It is extremely frowned upon to bother others. This may not seem so different from any other culture at first glance. However, the Japanese definition of the word “bother” is much more extensive than that of many other cultures. For instance, in the United States, it might be considered a bother to your neighbors if you play music too loudly or late at night. In Japan, it might be considered a bother if you play music at all. In fact, you’ll even find warnings on trains about playing music too loudly out of your own earphones. Furthermore, whereas in western cultures being a “bother” every now and again is generally excused, and even expected, in Japan it has the capability of tarnishing a person’s reputation in a severe way. The positive aspect of this is that you will likely never be bothered by your Japanese roommates. Ever. For any reason. However, it may also be difficult to discern when you are being a bother to them. Now, if you are a westerner living with Japanese, it is unlikely that you’ll become the universally hated “gaijin” just because you play music quietly in your own room sometimes. However, this is another aspect of life in Japan that may require more powers of observation and consideration than we westerners are used to applying to our everyday lives.
If there’s a consistent theme to the information covered here, it is that a lot of Japanese life is dictated by rules that are assumed to be “understood” instead of directly communicated. When you’ve spent most of your life and upbringing in a society that values direct communication, it can be tough to adjust to the differences. However, it really isn’t as daunting as it may seem. Generally, as long as you try to be considerate and thoughtful toward your roommates (or coworkers or members of any other social group you find yourself a part of), you will find it easy to get along with them, and chances are you’ll even make a good friend or two.