Observations Abroad: Year 1

Since moving to Okinawa, I’ve seen plenty of Buzzfeed-style blogs and lists about what makes it unique, special, or funny. Since arriving here myself almost 1 year ago (!), I’ve come up with a list of my own. Very little of it is scientific, of course. These are just observations I’ve made since moving here last April. I hope they provide a bit of insight into the cultural experience I’ve enjoyed here so far 🙂

1. How low can you go?

Bowing in Japan is simply a matter of being polite. Americans give handshakes… the Japanese bow. Just bought a pack of gum? The Japanese salesperson will bow in gratitude. Absentmindedly loaned the maintenance guy a pen? He will bow for you lower than ever. In the beginning, it made me very uncomfortable. Now, it’s practically a norm. When I return to the States, I find myself bowing when I leave a store, a restaurant, or any other service-related establishment. I wonder how much it creeps people out?


President Obama does it pretty well!

2. Mysterious sources of hydration

In the U.S., it’s fairly standard to receive a large glass of water with your meal, with a waiter on hand to promptly refill it as it gets low. In many authentically Japanese establishments that I’ve experienced so far, you often specifically request mizu, and then only receive the tiniest little cup of it. It is much more typical to receive a cup of tea as a complimentary beverage with your meal, but even that is in a cup meant for little people. On an island as sweltering as Okinawa, and with meals as salty as soba and ramen, it’s a wonder how they stay hydrated at all! I am perpetually parched…. and awkwardly asking for more mizu.

3. Obsession with all things Paris

If you visit a Japanese mall, department store, and pretty much everything in between, you will encounter all sorts of French paraphernalia. This includes everything from Eiffel Tower figurines to tee shirts and coffee mugs with wildly incorrect French verbiage on them. There are even all sorts of “French” restaurants in Okinawa that serve plentiful Italian and Spanish foods like paella and pasta, but nary a trace of foie gras, brie, croissants, or escargot.

But really now – even if they get it all wrong, who can blame them? I love Paris too.  But the fascination the Japanese hold for the City of Light has actually contributed to a condition unique to Japan, called Paris Syndrome. The condition causes victims to experience a number of psychiatric symptoms, including hallucinations, delusions, anxiety, and psychosomatic manifestations like dizziness, sweating, and tachycardia. According to Wikipedia, the “susceptibility of Japanese people may be linked to the popularity of Paris in Japanese culture, notably the idealized image of Paris prevalent in Japanese advertising.” I’m not making this up, kittens. You can read all about it here.


There is a 24-hour help line run by the Japanese embassy in Paris to help Japanese tourists suffering from this condition during their visit.  Luckily, it only affects about 20 tourists per year.

4. Fake food displays

Quite a few restaurants and cafes in Japan display plastic replicas of their menu items in a glass case outside the establishment. I feel like if I saw this in the U.S., I would automatically assume the restaurant was cheap and its display tacky. But in Japan, the fake food means nothing of the sort. Everything is delicious, and actually looks and tastes as advertised (both behind the glass and in photos!) It’s amazing what using real food and local ingredients can do for a meal…

5. Aversion to the sun

Fair skin is prized in Japan, and the Japanese go to great lengths to shield themselves from the sun’s damaging rays. It’s not uncommon to see both men and women carrying open umbrellas on sunny days as they walk to work, with very little skin left uncovered. I don’t even want to talk about how ridiculous I must look at the beach, soaking up sunshine half naked in a bikini while the Japanese (women in particular) are practically covered head to toe to avoid the dreaded suntan… But seriously, they must get so hot in all those clothes.

6. Sensory overload

The Japanese are a VERY expressive people when it comes to colors, sounds, noises, and other distractions in their shopping facilities. I can’t handle many of the establishments for very long (like Don Quijote, which is pretty much Walmart on crack.) There’s almost an arcade/casino like atmosphere to many of them… and there’s just so…much… stuff!


7. Tourist attraction safety: zero f*cks given!

I actually really love this about the Japanese. Americans are so paranoid. Everything is off-limits… you can’t touch this, you can’t walk that… and people will sue at the drop of a hat. In Japan, you are treated like an adult and you are responsible for yourself. They also let their kids run around in the back of their cars, which leads me to believe that Japanese kids must be more durable than American ones. No wonder they live so long… they just don’t worry about things.

Check me out climbing these ruins and getting a REAL view of Okinawa!


8. Japanese “English”

It turns out that the Japanese mess up our language as much as we mess up theirs. Tee shirts and other articles of clothing with English “sayings” on them abound. I have seen some pretty hilarious combinations, and I always forget to take pictures, but here are a few I did manage to collect!

9. Everything is SMALL

I mean reallyyy small. The plastic bags for getting produce at the grocery store are small. The shopping carts are small. The exercise equipment and washing machines would probably only be adequate in a kid’s playhouse in the States.

Oh, and my kimono size? LARGE. (For reference, I’m an XS/0-2 in ‘Murica.) Those larges are quite difficult to find, too. Most sizes available to Americans range from XXL – XXXL. Naturally.

10. Sex appeal is better animated.

I’ve seen all sorts of provocative images in Japan… but funny thing is, they’re almost exclusively anime. There’s plenty of anime porn (of varying degrees), and ads with scantily clad cartoon women. Maybe I’m in all the wrong places, but I have yet to see an ad with a scantily clad human woman here in Okinawa. No bras, panties, or bikinis on display here!

10. On a more serious note…

Ever since we arrived almost a year ago, I’ve wondered how the Japanese feel about the American presence on Okinawa. Even though I know the history and politics behind our presence, and I understand why it is valuable, I still feel like an occupying force at times. An intruder. I try to imagine what it would be like if a foreign military power was present in my city back home…

There are protests outside some of the bases here, and when I visit certain installations for work, I have experienced some verbal heckling. I would be lying if I said it didn’t make me feel bad. At the same time, many of the protesters are flown in from mainland Japan and paid for their efforts, so that takes away from its credibility at times.But I do know there are Okinawans who don’t like the “Yankees.”

Then again… most seem to like us. Or tolerate us, at least. If nothing else, they appreciate our contributions to their economy, with our frequenting of local cafes, izakayas, and tourist attractions. I just try to lay low and avoid doing things that will make me the “annoying American.”

So far, so good? Hai!

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