Japan Lessons

Japan Lessons

Not long after I had moved to Tokyo, someone shared with me the three P’s of surviving Japan: punctuality, politeness and patience.

I have since appreciated that for a more fruitful life here I must be on time, if not a few minutes early, I should be overly courteous, even when it feels unnatural, and I must never be in too much of a rush if I want things to go smoothly. 

Having passed the three-year mark in Japan, I realize that living here has taught me valuable lessons, too. They are my three H’s of humility, humor and honor.

I have learned to be humble because I’ve failed miserably at studying Japanese. I cannot read the warning signs or our daily mail. I can’t talk with the 2-year-old in our apartment building who greets me with a cheery “Ohayo gozaimasu!” each morning. 

I walk around all day being illiterate and depending on the kindness of strangers. That is terribly humbling indeed. “Omizu, onegaishimasu” is my favorite phrase in Japanese. I like that I at least know how to humbly request an honorable glass of water. 

My second H is connected to the first. Humbled by my failure to learn Japanese, I have learned to laugh at my linguistic and cultural mistakes. During my first visit to an onsen bath, for example, I confidently asked for a “yakuza” when requesting a robe at the front desk. After witnessing the shock on the clerk’s face, I will never forget the word “yukata” again. 

On another occasion, I needed to pay for an event hosted by a group of wonderful Japanese women. Aware that cash should be presented in an envelope, I rushed (remembering my first P) to a local convenience store to pick up one of those ornate envelopes with a bow. 

I proudly presented it to the president of the club. She gasped. That particular type of envelope, she later explained, was for a condolence offering at a funeral. I can laugh about it now, but I overflowed with humility at the time. 

My third H, honor, is all around. Honor is in Japan’s ancient Shinto belief system and its appreciation for nature. This sense of pride is in the station guard’s bow to a departing train. I recently witnessed it at a Japanese elementary school, where second graders served lunch to their classmates. I see it in the forgotten purse left out in plain sight, untouched for hours. 

While I consider myself someone who works hard and who doesn’t lie or steal, I believe Japan has heightened my awareness of honor. 

As I go about my day humbly depending on others, laughing at my mishaps and recognizing honor all around me, I am learning to be an even better person while here. For these lessons, I will never forget Japan.

Words: Risa Dimacali
Illustration: Tania Vicedo