Different language, different food, different culture. All of these pose significant challenges to missionaries or short-term workers who must understand, learn and adapt many new habits and behaviors, that may be completely different and even offensive to their native cultures.
Last week we saw a lit bit of what Sunday is like in Japan. This week, in the stories below, Heather describes her experiences of Japanese culture and how during her four months in Japan she learned that no one culture has the right or wrong way of doing things.
Before I came to Japan I read several books on Japanese culture and etiquette. From this and my limited exposure to Japanese TV & film I had built in my mind what now seems like a 2D cardboard cut-out idea of the Japanese. What I am learning though, is that it’s not until you are immersed in a culture that the things you read start to come to life (or not, as the case may be!).
Thoughtful and meticulous, or frivolous and wasteful?
Something that has really struck me is how the Japanese do absolutely everything with the utmost care and attention to detail. To outsiders some examples of this can seem frivolous, wasteful or unnecessarily meticulous. For example, the tradition of “omiyage” requires the purchase of souvenirs after any trip (however short in time or distance) to give to friends, family and colleagues.
Omiyage however is not just a simple packet of sweets. The packaging is just as important as the contents, with big boxes containing layers of expensive packaging before you reach the edible treats below- usually a delicacy local to where you travelled. Every time I walk through a train station or airport in Tokyo I am amazed at the number of shops or stalls selling these expensive omiyage.
Not good, not bad, just different
Things which in the UK are considered good manners, such as politely blowing your nose into a tissue and putting it in your pocket, is considered horrible in Japan. Here it is more appropriate to sniff until you can get to a private place to blow your nose and immediately dispose of the tissue.
This may not seem so bad until you are sat on a train listening to the most melodious chorus of sniffing you could ever imagine! But hey, this probably does beat a pocket full of snot!
These episodes illustrated differences in manners across culture. But these are similar to other differences which characterize life in different countries – other-shaped electrical sockets, switches that go down and up the other way, driving on the left and right side of the road.
Cross-cultural workers may find these awkward and may instinctively feel “this is wrong”. But at the end, these are not moral differences. Respect and hospitality are shown through different habits, and countries have different norms and expectations. Some things across cultures take time to get used to, but they are not good, not bad – just different.
Will You Pray for Japan?
- Opportunities for cross-cultural understanding and friendship between people from different backgrounds.
- A heart of service in cross-cultural workers for the Gospel, to endure and adapt to uncomfortable but not-wrong aspects of culture. “I have become all things to all men, that I may all means save some.” – 1 Cor 9:22
- Unity in the church as it embraces brothers and sisters from different cultures.