My son in Japan Part 2: adapting to another culture

This post continues from my previous one. In that post, I described Abebe’s ten years (so far) in Japan. He completed university there and has achieved his dream of becoming a director of Japanese videogames.

My previous post expressed my feelings about being so far away from my son for such an extended period of time—and perhaps permanently.

This post brings my readers more of Abebe’s personality than my own. It gives insight about some of the many ways Japanese culture and the Japanese psyche are different from Canadian culture and attitudes. How has one Westerner adapted to Japanese culture—and been changed by it?


Paul and I visited Abebe in Seattle when he was there on business in 2016.

Abebe is now partially Japanese—and not just by marriage

 About a year ago, my father sent Abebe an article from the website Bored Panda titled “54 Photos That Prove Japan Is Not Like Any Other Country.” (You can look at this photo article by Šarūnė Bar here.)

Abebe sent back a long email with his responses to the photos. Many of his experiences and opinions surprised me. I’ve selected some of the topics covered by the photos. I’ve added Abebe’s comments about the relevant photos. Please follow the link above if you want to view the numbered photos I’m referring to.

The Japanese work ethic (photo #20, container of Black Black chewing gum)

Abebe’s comments about this gum give a glimpse into a typical salaryman’s schedule:

I have a long and complex history with this gum. It is a brand called Black Black Gum, and I have probably chewed close to 10,000 pieces of it. 

Black Black Gum is not like other gum. It is not designed to taste good. It is not even designed to be satisfying to chew. It exists for a single purpose: to prevent an exhausted human from sleeping.

About five years ago, while working on my first game, we went through a period of crunch that lasted for almost 6 months. During this time I was generally working 7 days a week and only sleeping around 5 hours a night.

I would always have a stack of Black Black at my desk and I would pop one every hour or so. After a while I realized that it left this weird coating on my teeth that felt awful.

Nowadays even seeing the package makes me feel like throwing up.

Suicide related to overwork (photo #12, train pushers)

The photo shows commuters rescuing a person who got stuck between the car of a train and the platform. Here is Abebe’s comment:

I’m sure this kind of thing has happened, but for the most part the thing I picture when I hear “train” and “push” are packed trains with people squeezing to get in.

Although they stopped employing people to help push, people still act as their own “pushers,” squeezing into trains already at 200% capacity. 

Sadly, getting stuck under a train is not the most common kind of accident. The VAST majority of train delays in big cities are caused by people throwing themselves onto the tracks on purpose.

When I was living in Tokyo for an internship I remember this happened multiple times per week. What was scary was that by the fourth time or so, you stop caring or thinking about the person, and just feel frustrated about the delay.

Japan has a high suicide rate (though it has been declining since 2010). Overwork can be a factor in many suicides. In fact, this kind of death has a specific name, karōshi.

Cleanliness in public, in the workplace, and at school (photo #3, fans cleaning up trash at a soccer stadium after a World Cup game; and photo #8, young children cleaning the hallways of their school)

Abebe’s comment on photo #3:

The thought of bringing trash somewhere and just leaving it the floor is unthinkable. 

When you use a facility you leave it as clean as it was when you got there. This should be common sense worldwide.

Abebe’s comment on photo #8:

This is true and I think it’s a great idea. Although the rules have now changed, when I first joined my company we were also required to get to work an hour early to clean the meeting rooms, empty the trash, etc.

When you clean a space you feel a specific kind of attachment and investment in it. Despite being a bit old-fashioned, I wish we had kept that particular rule.

This comment was a shock coming from my son, who as a teenager had a typical “disaster zone” bedroom!

Useful and beautiful Japanese design and technology (photos #14, #7, #16, #17, and others)

Many of the Bored Panda photos illustrate useful and beautiful aspects of Japanese design. For example, Japanese toilets have many ingenious features. Photo #14 shows a toilet with a button you press to play white noise/water sounds. Abebe wrote:

This is very important feature. When I was in America recently for a conference I felt extremely vulnerable in the bathroom. 

It doesn’t help that for some reason the stall walls don’t go all the way down to the floor, so you’re forced to look at a stranger’s shoes while you poop.

I forgot how stressful going to the washroom was outside of Japan.

Photo #7 shows examples of some manhole covers that are beautiful works of art. Abebe’s comment:

This is entirely true. Here in Osaka our covers have an image of Osaka castle.

Among many examples of smart design illustrated by the Bored Panda article are photo #16, showing how train seats can be rotated to face in any direction, and photo #17, showing “umbrella lockers.”

Why don’t we see more of Japanese technologies in Canada? Abebe’s opinion:

Japan has many well-designed little systems like this. It’s really a shame that they are not good at patenting and exporting them. 

They tell themselves that there would be no demand outside the “unique Japanese market,” when in actuality they are just ignorant about market needs outside Japan and unable to properly communicate the value of these designs coherently.

Lineups (photos #23 and #33)

Photo #23 shows people standing in perfectly neat lines waiting for a train. Photo #33 mentions that children start learning to line up in kindergarten.

Abebe had some thought-provoking comments about this:

I honestly stared at this photo [of the train lineups] for 15 seconds before realizing what was supposed to be remarkable about it. Yes, lining up is an essential skill in Japan.

The truth is even more impressive than this picture conveys. In big stations there will be coloured areas indicated on the ground that correspond to the various trains that pass through the station.

You line up in the area that corresponds to your train. When the train arrives, it will stop so that the doors line up with that area.

There is a dark side to this propensity for lining up. Japanese people expect lines so much that the lack of a line can be seen as a lack of popularity.

Some trendy shops in Umeda will purposefully bottle-neck their shop with a single cash register to artificially create a line, and thus the appearance of popularity.

These lineups remind me of a time I was teaching at a kindergarten during university.

One of the kids was misbehaving. When the teacher scolded him she said, “What you are doing is bad. Do you want to be different from everyone else?”

This seemingly innocuous comment really stuck with me. This kid was 4 years old, and already the idea that being different is inherently negative was being drilled into his little brain.

No theft (photos #11 and #52)

Photo #11 shows a young man asleep on a train. His suitcase is upright in front of him, with his wallet on top. Abebe’s comment:

While it does occasionally happen, for the most part things will not be stolen, even if left alone in a public place. I once lost my wallet in the supermarket and someone turned it into the police station with all the cash still intact.

Sometimes people take it a bit too far. In my company they send out a company-wide email every time a new item is added to the lost and found. One day we got an email asking if anyone had lost a 10 yen coin (that’s worth about 9 cents).

As a parent . . .

Abebe’s responses to the Bored Panda photos astonished me. I was amazed by how he’s changed, and how he’s been able to adapt to a completely new culture and language. He has retained his critical view of some aspects of Japanese life, but has embraced many Japanese innovations that promote convenience, clever and beautiful design, and consideration for others living in dense urban spaces.

He may never return to Canada to live.


Abebe and his girlfriend (now wife) Chihiro at Sasamat Lake during a visit in 2011






About nancytinarirunswrites

I used to be known as a competitive runner, but now I have a new life as a professional writer and editor. I'm even more obsessive about reading, writing, and editing than I was about running. Running has had a huge influence on my life, though, and runner's high does fuel creativity. Maybe that's why this blog evolved into being 95% about running, but through blogging I'm also learning about writing and online communication. I'm fascinated by how the Internet has changed work, learning, and relationships. I love to connect in new and random ways!
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