Observations from a 外国人

Sitting at my desk in San Francisco a few years back I would have never imagined using kanji in a sentence. Over the last month I’ve dove head first into learning kanji. Many foreigners don’t bother to learn it, you can technically learn to speak Japanese fluently without it, but I was becoming really frustrated with my lack of ability to read. From signs to menus to the grocery store, not being able to read slows you down so much, especially in a country using a non-Latin alphabet where you can’t simply type the word you don’t know into google translate.



Initially, I was really intimidated by kanji (ok, I still am). How can anyone possibly squeeze meaning out of these crazy symbols. But I’m surprised by how quickly I’ve been picking it up. So here it is, your two minute free kanji lesson. Kanji are Chinese symbols. Before Japan came up with their own alphabet they used Kanji for everything. Now, even though Japan has developed not one but two alphabets, they still use Kanji a lot in writing. One main reason is that the Japanese alphabet is phonetic and generally contains one syllable per letter (for example, が is “ga”) whereas Kanji can contain multiple syllables in one character (for example 東, east, is ひがし, or higashi). There are also a number of words with the same spelling and pronunciation but different meanings. While context helps, these words will also have their own kanji to help differentiate.

Anyway, each Kanji has a number of “readings” depending on the context/other kanji or hiragana (Japanese alphabet) it’s combined with. For example, written by itself 外 means outside and is pronounced soto, 国 means country, pronounced kuni, and 人 is person, pronounced hito. But if you mix and match kanji together into one word the readings can change and 外国人 becomes gaikokujin. WHAT? That’s right, sotogai, kunikoku and hitojin. What does it mean? Outside…country…person, or more simply, foreigner. So what I’m telling you is not only do you have to know what the symbol means, you also have to learn the readings when it’s by itself or with friends. Got it?


At first I thought, this is crazy, how can I be expected to contain this much information in my aging brain. Well, it’s hard, and at times seems impossible, but I’m actually really enjoying it and this foreign country with its foreign alphabets is slowly becoming legible to me. Every time I learn a new symbol and see it out in the world it feels like I’m unlocking a puzzle that I happen to live in.

For anyone reading this wondering how I’m learning Kanji I’m using this website called WaniKani (literally “alligator-crab”) and I love it. And no, they aren’t paying me to say that, though maybe they should!

I’ve now been in Japan for over two months and have had a few experiences I thought would be fun to share, so here we go:

I encourage everyone visiting Japan to line up outside a department store or supermarket right before it opens to experience the welcome ceremony (this is not an official name, it’s just what I’m calling it). 

I’ve experienced this magic twice now. The first time was my second day in Tokyo, I arrived at a department store in Kichijoji to visit Nitori (Japanese Bed Bath & Beyond) about 5 minutes before it opened. I noticed there was an impressively straight line of people waiting for the doors to open. At exactly 10:00 am on the dot the doors opened and two greeters appeared on either side of the door to bow and welcome (Irasshaimase!) every entering customer. As I walked through the ground floor “perfume/makeup section” I was greeted the same way at every counter I passed. Nitori is on the 7th floor and I took the escalators up because all of the women in line ahead of me were old and had moved their line to the elevators. As I hit each floor whoever worked on that floor was standing near the escalator ready with a bow and an Irasshaimase! I must have been greeted by 30 people on my way to the store. Usually when I get this much attention in a department store it’s because they think I’m going to steal something!


The second time I experienced the greeting ceremony was at my local supermarket, オーケー (literally, OK Grocery)…it’s okay. I was experiencing post-Hawaii jet lag and accidentally arrived about 15 minutes before they opened. I noticed a few people in line but rather than stand in line for a supermarket for 15 minutes I walked around the block. When I came back around 8:58 there were at least a hundred people in a line that wrapped around the building. I stood awkwardly near the entrance as the the doors were unlocked (again, 9:00 am to the second) and watched as two greeters came out to bow and welcome every customer as they entered the store.


Initially I found these experiences a bit strange and overly formal, but at the same time the level of respect shown to the customer is really impressive. I have to admit I have never felt more welcome in any department store or supermarket in my life.

Japanese culture generally respects personal space but enter a crowded train and you’re in another world.

The pusher

A couple of weeks ago I went to the Tokyo Immigration Bureau to collect my work visa. This required me to travel during rush hour, which I normally don’t have to do with my work hours. Let’s pause there and add a few quick facts about my lovely train line. I’ve read that the Rapid Chuo Line is the 4th most crowded train line in Tokyo. Using 100% capacity as a very loose measure of “being able to find your own space” and 250% capacity indicating the famous white glove train pushers (see photo), the Chuo line generally hovers around 200% during rush hour (and well over 100% during most hours). As soon as I arrived at my station I knew I was in trouble. Turns out one of the main train lines in Tokyo was temporarily shut down, throwing the entire JR system into chaos. I begrudgingly squeezed my way onto a more-packed-than-usual train which slowly became the most crowded train I’ve ever been on (if I had to guess, I’d say 245% as there were no white glove pushers available). In all honesty I was a bit worried I might have a panic attack. I’m not particularly claustrophobic but we were squeezed so tight that I could only see the person’s back immediately in front of me, couldn’t move either of my arms, and was staring straight up just so I could get some air. Had I wanted to get off at any stop ahead of Shinjuku it would have been a problem.

This is my train…I waited for the next one…it was just as crowded.

I was standing near the door when suddenly the train slammed on the breaks and everyone who was standing in the middle of the train, roughly 6 million people at this point, tumbled onto the ground. I was shocked and kind of scared. I’d never seen this happen before on any train, let alone in Japan. I thought surely some old ladies would get crushed. But to my even greater surprise, once the train was fully stopped everyone righted themselves in the same silence that constantly envelops the Chuo line. I was clearly the only one phased. I tried to imagine this happening on the Dublin/Pleasanton line on BART and the outcome surely would have been drastically different with a lot of yelling and some nervous laughter. Suffice to say, the normal 30 minute ride to Shinjuku took 90 minutes and I didn’t get my visa that day (but I did get it the next day, I’m official!).

Anyway, the point of this story is to highlight how Japanese people will tolerate insane levels of discomfort to get to work. I have been on some crowded trains in SF and NYC and it doesn’t come close to how many people will squeeze onto a JR train.

Trips to the supermarket are one of my strongest motivators for learning Japanese.

A fun side-effect of my adventures in Japanese cooking is that I have to buy Japanese ingredients. Typically the recipes I find are by Japanese-American (or just American) food bloggers and they will say “you can find [insert random asian ingredient] in the ethnic aisle at any major grocery store”. Well in Japan the “ethnic” aisle is the grocery store, while the “western food aisle” is the tiny section for things like pancake mix and cupcake wrappers. My adventures at the supermarket are far more challenging than my adventures in cooking as I figure out how to ask supermarket employees where I can find various items and follow them back and forth across the store. I’m pretty sure I’m recognized as the local foreigner at both of my supermarkets. I’ve now made shogayaki (ginger pork), chicken teriyaki, kappa maki, avocado rolls, miso butter onigiri, miso soup, and pork gyoza with relative success!

The level of safety in Japan is next level, but safety standards are different.

I see kids who can’t be older than five riding the trains to and from school by themselves. I consistently walk home from the station, just under twenty minutes, between 10:00 – 11:00 pm and the only time I felt mildly concerned was when I interrupted a raccoon trying to get something out of a trash bag. At the same time, I see really little kids and sometimes even carseats in the passenger seats of cars. I also see parents with their kids sitting unbuckled with no helmets in baskets on the front of their bikes. Maybe this is a Koganei thing, there aren’t a ton of cars in the backroads of my suburb, but I’m still surprised when I see it.

Cherry blossoms in Japan are beyond beautiful.

I wasn’t super excited about cherry blossom (sakura) season. I’ve suffered from pollen allergies my whole life and I’d read that sakura season is a nightmare for allergies, and it was. But, it was so beautiful. I understand it normally lasts about a week, but this year the temperatures dropped right at the start of bloom and kind of froze everything in place for about three weeks. There is so much to know about sakura season here it would take a whole post, but one interesting thing I learned is that Japan has taken great care to cross-breed various cherry trees to create the perfect pink color.

In Koganei I am treated differently but I don’t mind.

I’m told that in Tokyo people don’t typically say hi to each other on the street (in the same way that if you walked past someone in San Francisco or New York City you wouldn’t say hello). In fact, you might be surprised to learn that if you visit Japan you might never hear anyone say konnichiwa. During my visit last year I was surprised I never heard it until one day I went for a hike and suddenly everyone I passed was saying konnichiwa. I remember thinking, is this only a word for hello while hiking? In fact, kind of! Ask around and you’ll learn that hiking is one of the few places people do say konnichiwa, and it’s vaguely because you are sharing an experience in nature. I think the same culture kind of holds true in America. If I walk past someone hiking I’m much more likely to say hello to them than if I pass them anywhere else.

In Koganei the same rule applies…except sometimes with me. I think because there are so few foreigners in my neighborhood, (old) people get excited when they see me and they will often give me a huge smile, nod, and say konnichiwa! Two old women and an old man that I consistency see walking around (I honestly think they just do laps around the block all day), the owner of the tiny ground-floor-of-their-house cake shop, and the owner of the coin laundry mart always say konnichiwa or ohayio gozaimasu (good morning) and always ignore anyone else who happens to be walking by. In a neighborhood where I couldn’t be more out of place, it makes this 外国人 feel pretty special.

Maybe some of these observations make for a boring read, but looking back at my first two months these are the daily experiences that stand out to me!

Next week is called Golden Week in Japan. Golden Week is a collection of holidays within a short time in Japan and by law a day that falls in between holidays is also declared a holiday (so it seems someone smart placed holidays on May 3rd and 5th…), so they just made it a big country-wide holiday. This year Golden Week is an unprecedented ten days long because for the first time in history the Emperor is abdicating the throne to his son. Typically this would happen upon the death of the Emperor but Japanese people are living to be rather old these days so the current Emperor, who is now 85, has decided to retire.

Fun fact: when it comes to the date the Japanese calendar differs from the Gregorian calendar. The Japanese year is based on the reign period of the current emperor. Right now it is Heisei 31 (i.e., the current Emperor has been reigning since 1989 when the prior Emperor died, in year Showa 64). Beginning May 1, 2019 Japan will begin the Reiwa period with Reiwa 1. The traditional year is actually used on all official documents, including my utility bills, which was rather confusing until someone explained it to me. This has actually created a mini Y2K in Japan as it’s the first time the era name has changed since modern technology and some companies are scrambling to update their software. Many shops are even selling tiny stamps with the new Reiwa kanji on it in order to manually change documents.

In non-Japan related news, about a month ago I got to fly to Hawaii to meet my family on vacation. It was so nice to get to see my family after only five weeks abroad, though the goodbye was much harder this time (coupled with the depressing feeling of leaving Hawaii). Thanks again mom and dad for a wonderful trip!

4 thoughts on “Observations from a 外国人

  1. Emily, You are truly amazing! Your self awareness and observation bring participation to your experience. I feel as if I am with you.

    The ideagrams depict their meaning if you look closely. Are these used in common discourse? Your work there is important to make it easier to communicate with Western countries.

    My daughter-in-law Pam is teaching English to Japanese business people via internet.

    Your time with your parents must have been fun. It is now a very small world!

    It is interesting to observe how different cultures navigate the world. The waiting lines, the child care, the food seem to be adaptations to the island nature of the country, it’s efficiency and delicacy and beauty and fragility,(earthquakes).

    I hope to see you again when you return.

    Love, Corie


  2. Thank you Aunt Corie!
    Yes! They use kanji in every day writing, it’s everywhere!
    I actually got a chance to email with Pam a bit when I was applying for jobs – she was very helpful! Funny how our family now has multiple connections to Japan 🙂
    Hope you are doing well.
    Love, Emily

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