Admiring Japan as an outsider

Photo by Evgeny Tchebotarev on

There has been a lot of news about Japan because of the Olympics, and I’ve been enjoying every minute of it. It’s a nation and culture that I’ve always been curious about and became fascinated with it after the great 2011 earthquake and tsunami. It’s one of the worst catastrophes I’ve ever seen, and any ensuing chaos would be completely understandable. To the world’s surprise, there was order in how people behaved with no violence or looting. It was remarkable and admirable.

Years later, when I visited Japan for the first time, I experienced this unique culture first hand. I will never forget waiting outside Tokyo Central Station with all my luggage as I waited for a car to drive me to my hotel. A cold wind was blowing, and the map of Tokyo’s train routes flew out of my hand and landed about 100 feet away. I wanted to retrieve it, but I hesitated for a moment because I had all this luggage with me. Two station employees rushed to get the paper and returned it to me. For a moment, I wondered if they rushed to help me or to clear the eyesore that was my tumbling map in this impeccably clean city.

After traveling there and continuing to learn more about it, I sometimes find myself wishing I could be Japanese. The flip side to all of this is that it is a very insular and very defined culture. I mean with the most neutral of intentions because I see how this is perhaps the key to the strength of the Japanese, but as an outsider, I also see it as tragic for people like me. I know that no matter how fluent you become or how many years you live there, a person will never be “Japanese.” I’ve read about how difficult it can be for a foreigner to even rent an apartment on their own.

Perhaps being condemned to forever be an outsider is why I love Japan. I can explore the nation and experience the culture always as a third party. There are many lessons to learn from Japan and its culture, but I have the freedom to not be judged by all the rules because (as an outsider) I am forgiven for not knowing all the social rules.