Here are some random things that I learnt about Japan from my first visit there last week. Keep in mind that most of my pre-knowledge before the trip was based on scenes from "Lost in Translation"... :)
- More than just Sushi. I assumed that when I came to Japan, I'd spend my whole time eating Sushi, since I'm a huge fan of that here. But then I was brought out by various people who all insisted I try various types of Japanese fare - ramen in a cube (solitary food confinement), okiyanamaki (from Osaka- spelling completely off), tonkatsu (japanese chicken fingers, finger-licking good!), and even non-Japanese fare like Lebanese food.. and that's when I realized that there was so much deliciousness to be had in Tokyo if I'd give up my sushi obsession for the week. In retrospect, I never went out for any Sushi meals..so now I'll never know how it competes with the US equivalent. Oh well, next time!
- Bowing, bowing everywhere. Japanese bow as a way of saying thanks or acknowledging you or something like that, so I was constantly surrounded by people bowing. Sometimes it was the hotel staff (there'd be 6 in a row bowing in the lobby - I felt like I was running through a gauntlet), sometimes it was developers saying goodbye. It was altogether awkward for me, since I wasn't sure whether I was supposed to bow back - I generally did a head nod, which I figure is like a mini bow, and better for my back anyway. The weird thing is that I'm now finding myself bowing in China ever so slightly.. which is completely unnecessary here. :)
- 4 addressing modes. I'm not sure the linguistic term, but in Japanese, your speech changes depending on the level of you to your addressee - there's Honorary, polite, humble, and inferior. So if you're addressing the president, you'd use Honorary, and if addressing a customer, you'd use humble/inferior (to make the customer feel important). The modes change both suffixes of words and sometimes even the words themself (e.g. "eat" is different), and the more polite the mode, the longer the suffixes are. So that explains why it always felt like hotel clerks and cashiers were always saying so much to me, for so little of an occasion (like saying "thanks").
- Half punk/half prep. In the offices and developer events, the Japanese people were often super dressed up, in business suits and the like. In walking the streets though, there were quite a few Japanese that were dressed in punk/goth/leather/lolita/etc. So it seems the norm is to be very formally dressed, and the "non-conformist" solution is to be very out there. Basically, nobody there does casual - the t-shirt & jeans scene just isn't their thing.
- Japanese = Spanish? I found myself constantly thinking that I was actually listening to Spanish, as I was overhearing conversations or watching videos on MTV Japan. I figured out this is because they clearly pronounce all vowels in the Japanese language, as they do in Spanish, so their syllables are very similar. I also realized that I knew multiple Spanish developers in Japan (and only 1 Japanese developer)..which leads me to suspect that Spanish speakers are on to the similarities as well, and figured Japanese would be the next easiest non-Romance language to learn. The similarities actually tempt me to learn Japanese, since Spanish is one of those few languages I can actually pronounce, and I would like to learn an Asian language.
- English.. not so much. In the world of restaurants and cafes, pretty much noone spoke or understood English and all communication was done through pointing and gestures (which worked). In the world of developers and engineers, there were some that could understand English, but many of them only understood Japanese (which is why my talk was translated simultaneously). However, even amongst those that could understand English, there were very few that could fluently speak English, and they were all clearly more comfortable speaking Japanese than English. I hadn't realized that English was such a low language on the Totem pole in Japan, and I now understand why the developer community there is so separate from our Europe/America community (with its own forums and Gurus) - they simply can't use our English resources. So, a big thanks to our localization team for getting a Japanese version of our documentation out this year!
- Karaoke is awesome. Singing the opera part in "Bohemian Rhapsody" in a room of Japanese developers is something that everyone should experience. And of course, one always has to finish with "Living on a Prayer". I always believed it was a song embraced all over the world, and I have now proved it. Bon Jovi - you may kinda suck now - but you've done a great thing for world peace.