English teachers from overseas in Japan often talk about the way Japanese people show surprise by pointing at themselves with their fingers.
In English schools, the foreign teacher asks a Japanese student a question, or to say something. The student who was chosen makes a surprised face and points at himself with his finger.
It means “Me?” but non – Japanese often talk about that gesture being odd. Foreigners always say “Japanese students are generally shy, aren’t they?” Also, in the business world, they’re more polite and replace “shy” with “polite”.
The background to this is that Westerners are puzzled by Japanese people not expressing themselves and their keeping things inside. When the teacher asks you a question, if you point at yourself with your finger and have a surprised expression on your face, it will reinforce that impression.
When most foreigners think about Japanese people, the first thing that comes to mind is the custom of bowing. Even today, this is the stereotypical image of Japanese people.
The truth is that Japanese people also shake hands and use easy, casual greetings, but it is a fact that the image of them bowing deeply is embedded in the minds of Westerners.
One English person at Narita Airport’s train station took a photo of a scene in which a station worker was bowing to a departing train, finding it very interesting. He wondered, “Is a train really so important?”
You know, the Japanese person wasn’t bowing to a train. One bows to show respect to the passengers riding in the train. However, it is interesting that a stereotypical image makes a natural Japanese action funnier.
When a plane takes off from Narita Airport, the maintenance workers from a straight line and wave to the departing plane. At an American airport, when their work is finished, they just get in their vehicles with no expressions on their faces and leave.
Regardless of which is right or better, in order to get foreigners to understand uniquely Japanese values, a polite explanation that fits with their way of thinking may be necessary.
It’s funny to see Japanese people obeying the law at a “Don’t Walk” signal in an intersection where no cars are coming.
One often sees Japanese people standing at “Don’t Walk” signals in deserted intersections. By the way, at “Don’t Walk” signals in New York, everybody keeps walking if there are no cars coming.
When there are several Japanese at places such as an intersection where there no cars coming, they will check to see whether other people are moving, but even if everyone wants to cross quickly, they will stand still.
Also, if, by chance, someone starts crossing, Japanese people will gradually start moving into the intersection after him or her as if they’re saying, “We’re not afraid to cross at a Don’t Walk signal if everyone does it together.”
Acting spontaneously can break the harmony sometimes, so Japanese people are especially careful about doing it. The law is the law, so maybe one should obey “Don’t Walk” signals.
However, in such situations, the Japanese idea of acting in a way that preserves their harmonious relationship with other people, is mysterious to foreigners.
There is a Japanese value called “Wa”. “Wa” means the concept of doing things in harmony and without confrontations in human relationships.
People say that it originates in a custom of the agricultural society during the feudal period, where instead of one person standing out, everyone worked and produced things for the group.
At any rate, Japanese people base their relationships on “Wa” when working. This is different from other countries, where human relationships develop gradually as people work together.
In order to learn about one another’s backgrounds and to make connections between people for working as a group, they do things like going out to lunch or having dinner and drinking alcohol together.
On the other hand, Westerners place importance on an independent lifestyle and consciousness, so if there is no business reason, they don’t go out with their coworkers just to eat lunch.
Even more than that, from evening until night is important personal time. They rarely go out drinking ir have dinner together.
However, for Japanese people, going out to lunch together is one of the common ways to foster a group identity in daily life.