You hear it on the Internet. Japan is a paradise on Earth when you visit there as a tourist, but not so much when you try to live there. Many Japanese people will agree to that, as Japanese society can suffocate you with loads of rules and social guidelines.

But that’s not the whole story. Japan is in fact a paradise on Earth for those, Japanese or not, who have figured out the real nature of its culture.

Show host Kyota Ko explains what makes Japan hell and paradise for different people.

Hello world, you are listening to the Metro-classic Japanese. My name is Kyota Ko. 

I realized recently that it’s been a year since I started podcasting, and also that I had been featuring topics mostly about the parts of Japanese culture that stand out in the crowd of cultures in the world. And that meant talking about Japanese history, tea ceremony, samurais, and of course Japanese food culture. 

And to talk about these topics, I went through many books and studied them myself and I learned a lot from the whole experience. I am confident that I can now give a satisfying explanation about almost anything concerning Japanese culture. 

But what’s become interesting for me now is that I started feeling more grateful about my daily life in Japan now that I have a good idea about why things are as they are. 

That’s a very vague statement so to explain a bit more, in my twenties and early thirties, Japan felt like a very stressful environment to live in for me. I’ll explain specifically why later in this podcast, but I know I wasn’t alone in this idea. I think Japan is in fact a stressful place to live life for many natives AND non-natives alike because of cultural differences. 

You might think that’s a strange thing to say. It’s understandable that non-natives may feel cultural gaps between their original culture and Japanese culture, but how can a Japanese native feel cultural gaps between themselves and Japanese culture? 

Well, that’s my whole point today: there is a cultural gap between many Japanese people and Japanese culture, and that’s causing them to feel that Japan is a stressful place to live, but it really isn’t once you figure out what’s making Japan Japan. And I think this applies to foreign nationals who move to Japan, too.

Modern Japanese people grow up amid a sea of micro social expectations

So to give it away, the problem is Japanese people grow up in a superficial interpretation of Japanese culture. First let me give you an idea of what I mean by that.

Japanese children grow up learning to be careful not to cause trouble onto people around them, especially when they are in public, outside of their homes.

So for example if you are a 6 year old and you’re screaming and running around in the house around 9 PM because you’re having so much fun playing with your sibling, you’ll get told by your parents to keep it down, not because they’re being noisy and it’s bothering their parents, but because it might bother your neighbors who might be trying to get some sleep. 

Or if you’re on a somewhat crowded train with your parents and you find a seat open and you rush to sit down, feeling all lucky, some parents may tell you not to, because there might be an elderly person on the train who might want to sit there. 

Or if you accidentally drop a candy wrapper on the street or in a restaurant or shop, you’ll be told by your parents to pick it up because you just aren’t supposed to soil a common place for everyone. Because it’s a common place! It’s not your house!

Entering adulthood means more micro social expectations

And this social expectation of being careful not to cause trouble onto others in public extends well into your adult life, and it’s especially mind-boggling if you live in the city like Tokyo, where I live.

At the office, there are hundreds of business etiquettes you’re supposed to observe, like how you’re supposed to hand and receive name cards with both hands and your counterpart’s name card needs to always be placed above yours. 

When you visit someone’s house, you feel you’re expected to bring a small gift because everyone else does. And then when you do bring something, now you feel your gift is being compared with the gifts the other guests brought. So you feel you need to know the most cost-effective confectionery brands at your local department store.

When you are invited to a wedding or funeral, you’re expected to know all the micro-choreographed do’s and don’ts of those events. So here’s a list of the first few:

For a funeral:

  • Wear a black suit and black tie if you’re a man, a black conservative dress and a pearl necklace if you’re a woman. So everyone’s supposed to have a set of these ready to go.
  • Bring a condolences money gift of an amount between 3,000 yen and 10,000 yen depending on how close you were with the person you’re seeing off, and put it in a special envelope specifically designed for that purpose and seal the envelope specifically the way it’s supposed to be sealed. So it makes you feel like a cheapskate when you want to only bring the bare minimum. 
  • Upon checking in at the reception of the funeral, say a specific phrase only said in that occasion to the receptionist as you hand over the envelope with the condolences money you hid and hope it was enough to not make you look stingy. And by the way you are supposed to wrap that envelope around in this special cloth that for some reason absolutely needs to be purple and no one knows where you can buy one so you have to look it up on the Internet every freaking time someone dies! And of course there is a specific way you are supposed to wrap the envelope with that stupid purple fabric. 

OK let’s stop there for funerals and go on to weddings.

For a wedding:

  • Wear a black or navy suit and a white or light colored tie if you’re a man, and a light colored conservative dress if you’re a woman, but you may not wear the color white because you’re not the bride. Fair enough, I don’t have any complaints so far. 
  • Bring a congratulatory money gift of 30,000, 50,000, 70,000, 80,000 or 100,000 yen but of no other amount because anything else is bad luck.The “logic” goes: 10,000 yen is just not enough; even numbers are divisible and the idea of dividing something is not appropriate for an event where we’re supposed to be celebrating a marriage. Then why’s 80,000 yen OK?The Kanji character for the number 8 is shaped like the outline of a mountain which gets wider towards the end. That is metaphorically similar to your wish for the married couple to be happier as they age. Which is breathtakingly ridiculous considering the fact that in Japan, most couples end up doing the exact opposite.Oh and why’s 100,000 yen OK? That’s an even number! Oh, because… because it’s a 100! Everyone likes multipliers of 10. 

You know, terrorists should burn in hell, but so does whoever came up with these dumb rules!!!!

Micro social expectations in daily life

Now because what I’ve mentioned so far only cover special occasions, I’m going to go on to talk about how micro social expectations govern us in our daily lives. 

On the train, there is another set of social etiquettes you’re supposed to observe, like basically not talking on the train at all. Pulling out your phone to make or receive a phone call is out of the question. You will be seen as a social outcast instantly. 

If you’re carrying a backpack, you’re supposed to hold it in front of you when you’re on a crowded train in order to make more room for more people to board the train. It took me a few days for me to understand this logic actually. So when you are on a jam-packed train, it’s super awkward if you get pressed against another person face-to-face. You don’t want to be feeling the other person’s breath being breathed onto your face.

You need a wider social distance in front of you than behind you, so if your backpack is in front of you, you don’t occupy any potential space someone else could have filled. If you keep your backpack on your back, you’re a douchesack who takes up two-people worth of space on a rush hour train. So it’s called a backpack, but you’re not supposed to have it on your back. The riddles of life. 

I can keep going for another 10 minutes but you can imagine how stressful it can be to remember to be careful about all these things whenever you’re in public. And whenever I get on the rush hour train during my morning commute, I can see plenty of Japanese adults on the train who are about to explode. You can see on their faces the frustration of being strangled every single day by all these social expectations. 

Every now and then, the train stops for like 5 minutes, and a 5 minute delay is quite a major delay in Japan, by the way, and the reason that’s announced for these delays is “trouble between customers.” 

So all the more patient adults who are not there to see what exactly happened wait quietly for the ride to resume while imagining: maybe a tired middle aged man who was extra frustrated with life pushed another guy a little too hard and they got into a fight.

Japan is a very peaceful place to be and it’s clean almost everywhere, and you won’t run into many weird people, and that’s a huge perk. But living in Japan can be mentally straining, partly because of all these day-to-day micro social expectations. 

I believe this is how Japan maintains order and stability – by having individuals sacrifice a small part of their personalities and lean towards being a calm, harmless existence when they are in public. This way, Japan as a whole attains a relatively calm and stable country personality. 

And I think in many people’s minds, this is understood as the reason they should behave themselves in public. For the common good. 

But I‘ve come to realize recently that that’s a superficial interpretation of Japanese culture. It’s not false, but that’s not the whole story. 

The underlying reason: to be a free, mindful and creative existence 

To understand the real purpose of having so many social guidelines, we turn to Japanese tea ceremony. I was doing a lot of reading on tea ceremony a while ago and I understood that tea ceremony was like a live performance of your idea of hospitality and it’s also a way to sophisticate yourself and become more mindful. 

You memorize the choreography of every single micro movement of the whole tea ceremony. That means opening the door in a certain elegant way, entering the tea room in a certain elegant way, picking up the tea bowl and wiping it in a specific manner, serving tea and food at a certain timing, and on and on. 

You also need to learn which variant of the dozens of tea utensils and flowers you are supposed to use in each season. “Why does serving tea have to be so difficult!” Would be your initial response to learning tea ceremony. 

Now doesn’t that sound similar to the Japanese life in general? There are so many guidelines that are practically rules that you need to follow. You wonder why everything needs to be so choreographed. 

But the purpose for having a gazillion rules in tea ceremony and for having gazillions of what I would call micro social expectations in Japanese culture is, I believe, to free yourself from rules. 

I know that sounds extremely counterintuitive and it’s as if I’m throwing a Zen riddle at you, but hear me out. 

So when you start learning tea ceremony, your mind’s busy trying to memorize every move and your goal is solely to not make an error. You don’t think about why there are these rules because your mind’s busy trying to memorize. 

Then your tea ceremony teacher tells you “don’t try to memorize.” Another Zen riddle. So without knowing why you have to do everything as told, you just go through the motions repeatedly, and as you keep doing everything as told, you eventually come to realize that your body has memorized the motions by heart. Muscle memory. 

The rules of tea ceremony have been very carefully thought out by generations of tea masters. They are the best possible moves – they are the most efficient and effective means to accomplishing the objectives of, for example, lifting a tea spoon, scooping hot water with a ladel, placing the ladel on the pot, frothing the tea, and placing the tea bowl in front of the guest. 

There are some things you don’t need to be creative about. The most efficient and therefore most elegant way to doing some things have already been figured out. So in tea ceremony, by learning the most efficient and elegant ways to do things by muscle memory allows you to become a person who just naturally does everything elegantly. 

When you get to that point where all the rules become second nature to you, then you realize there is so much room for creativity in self expression everywhere else. You focus your whole mind in where you should be creative in. In tea ceremony, that will be to think of a theme for the next ceremony you will hold for the special guests you have in mind. How fun would it be to think of how to entertain them, how to surprise them, how to make that one bowl of tea you serve them an unforgettable memory. 

You know your muscle memory will deliver everything you want to realize in your mind in the most elegant of ways. You no longer need to worry about following rules. Your mind is free from them, and therefore you become an elegant, sophisticated and fully creative human being. 

For a lack of a better analogy, I would say Japanese tea ceremony is a miniature training ground for thriving in Japanese culture, or perhaps in any part of the world. In Japanese society, like I talked about earlier, chokes you with social guidelines and stresses you out to an almost unbearable point, but there are many people, mostly middle aged and up, who live by the guidelines as if they were nothing to them. 

They have gone through so many days abiding by the micro social expectations, that they have learned to carry out the best social behavior by muscle memory. They are elegant and humble. They don’t take up anyone else’s personal space, they don’t take up anyone’s mental space because they don’t express themselves in situations they don’t have to. Like during their commute!

They wouldn’t take up more space than they need when they get on a crowded train, they wouldn’t pick up a phone call on the train and start babbling, they wouldn’t share their taste of music with everyone else on the train by playing it at that kind of volume. They do none of these things, not because they don’t want to bother people, but because they just don’t do it. 

It’s similar to the spirit of chivalry. Gentlemen who have internalized chivalry in a true sense don’t practice “ladies first” because they want a chance to get laid or anything. They just do it because chivalry is second nature to them. It’s part of their identity. 

When you master your daily motions and make them second nature, you free up your mind for more important things, like thinking about who you really are or being creative about what you want to express or how you want to live your life. 

A real-life example of a free Japanese person in Kagurazaka, Tokyo

Tea ceremony is said to be a manifestation of all the virtues of Japanese culture and I came to agree to this idea through recently meeting a tea ceremony practitioner who was elegant, sophisticated and creative all together. It was a complete stranger and I don’t even know her name, but she helped me realize the underlying reason for Japanese society to be so suffocating. She showed me what mindful existence you can be through living the Japanese way of life.

I was walking through a neighborhood called Kagurazaka in Tokyo, which is a slope leading up to a shrine and there are many little but classy shops selling locally made food and souvenirs, and there are so many really, really tasty but affordable restaurants along the way. It used to be a place in Tokyo where Geishas would be and when you step into the back alleys it feels a bit like you’re in Kyoto. Many old architectures are still there. 

Anyway, so in one of the back alleys around the top of the slope and away from the main street, closer to the residential area there, I came across a black, 2 story house made of Yakisugi which is a traditional Japanese construction technique of charring the surface of cedar wood in order to protect it from decay. So all the outer walls are made of black wood. 

And there was a short curtain hung at the door. We call these Noren (のれん) and that means it’s a shop or restaurant, and that it’s open. It was a cafe specializing in tea. I would rather call it a tea house because all the equipment you need to perform tea ceremony was there. 

So I go in and much of the tea house is made of Japanese cedar. The interior decor is a blend of Western and Japanese designs. It’s immaculately clean. I could see that each piece of furniture and the tea bowls on display were carefully handpicked by the owner. They were all functional and ergonomic, and most likely handcrafted, but didn’t look so ridiculously expensive that you would feel nervous being around them. 

The two customers who were already there were chatting comfortably in a soft but lively kinda voice. I was shown upstairs and there was a small, elevated tatami space beside the dining table I seated myself. There was a metal kettle placed in the middle of the tatami space. There was a scroll with calligraphy hung on the wall. There were hooks on the wall to hang flower baskets. It was minimal and open, but it was no doubt a space for tea ceremony. 

The staffer left a small cup of very transparent tea at my table. I had a sip and it was cold tea. This was in December. Normally, Japanese restaurants would serve hot tea in winter, but this tea was cold. But cold tea was just what I needed. 

This tea house stood almost on the top of the Kagurazaka slope which is about 300 meters or around 1000 feet long. It’s a gentle slope, but because you go in back alleys and go into shops here and there, you would have walked around a kilometer or in other words over half a mile by the time you get to the top. So you would get all warmed up, and a cold drink is in fact precisely what you want. 

So here, I started suspecting that the owner, whoever it was, deliberately broke away from the norm to do what’s best. He or she knew customers would be craving for a cold beverage by the time they got to the tea house. The tea house was already showing signs of excellent hospitality.

The cold tea wasn’t just cold, it was super good. I asked the staffer what it was and she said it was Japanese black tea. I don’t have the vocabulary to explain how good it is, sorry, but I was determined to ask where I could get the tea leaves myself.

The owner – tea master and master of life

And just when I looked at the menu a slender lady with glasses, probably in her late 40s, comes and says “Please let me explain what’s on the menu briefly.” And she gave a concise explanation of each drink and dessert. Not too short, not too long, and didn’t use any gourmet jargon that you are suddenly expected to know whenever you step into a stuck-up French restaurant. 

And she spoke with a real voice, not the fake service-y kind of voice you would always hear at department stores here in Japan.

I picked Hoji-cha latte which is roasted green tea with milk frothing. You can have a version of it at Starbucks in Japan – I don’t know about other countries. 

And then in a few minutes she comes back with a wooden tray with four gorgeous Raku ware. Raku ware are thick, heavy and asymmetric handcrafted Japanese tea bowls. She asked me which one I would like to drink my latte in. I had actually never held a serious Raku ware like the ones before my eyes, let alone pick one to have latte in. I got excited. There were black, green, pink and gold, and I chose the black one. 

The Hoji-cha latte came with 2 plates of small desserts and the latte itself of course tasted great. But more importantly, I experienced holding and drinking off of Raku ware for the first time in my life, and I even got to pick one. This lady, who I am 100% sure is the owner of the tea house, through her little business, let me experience at least 2 first-timers and taught me the joy of Japanese tea. And she only charged me a 1000 yen! 10 dollars!

I had already been determined to buy the Japanese black tea I mentioned earlier and when I went downstairs to pay, I saw a big packet of it, and I happily dropped off another 2000 yen for it. 

I experienced everything I had read about the philosophy of tea ceremony in that one hour stay at her tea house. I am absolutely sure she practices tea ceremony and it was amazing how she had created the perfect venue to express her idea of a third place and make a small business out of it so that she can share it with other people. 

I just had maybe a 15 second conversation with the owner, but her tone, how she spoke, what she wore, how she had set up her shop, everything was very humble and elegant. 

So all in all, for me, it was a nice little extraordinary experience. I will definitely go back there again.

The Japanese lifestyle is itself a Zen meditation

So the Japanese way to happiness has a steep learning curve and not all Japanese people make it to where the curve plateaus and you start seeing the world differently. Yes, Japan is a stressful place to live especially in the city with all the social rules and guidelines, but when you are on top of all the rules and guidelines and they don’t control you anymore, you no longer feel stress trying to observe them because you just do them without thinking, and suddenly, Japan is a wonderful place to live in. 

It’s safe, it’s stable, it’s clean, you only run into jerks or weird people once in a blue moon. The food tastes good, they are healthy and you don’t need to be rich to have any of them. You are not dealing with problems at a basic level, and you can focus your mind on doing everything else. 

Japan is a stressful place to live when you haven’t yet internalized its culture. Life in Japan itself is in a way, a Zen meditation. You just do it. Don’t think. And one day, you’ll feel liberated as heck. 

Thank you very much for listening to this Podcast. I’ll put up a text version of this episode on my blog which you’ll find the link to in my Podcast profile. I also post photos of life in Japan on my Instagram account almost daily. If you’re also a visual type of person, please check out The Metro-classic Japanese on Instagram.