Nov 15, 2017
About two years ago, I remember standing clueless amid the buzz of Narita Airport, clutching two heavy suitcases and an equally heavy heart. I was 18 and had just landed in Japan for my study abroad. My Japanese knowledge was null. My family and friends were half a continent away. I was on my own, and all this felt exciting.
Today, two years have flown by and it is safe to say I have tuned myself to life in Japan. Truth be told, it was not an easy journey. Mistakes were made. Failures were met. Summimasen was often said. However, there was plenty to learn from each fall. Now when I leave Japan, I will be be carrying two heavy suitcases again, one loaded with memories and another some important life lessons. Here I share the lessons learnt:
First thing I learnt when I landed in Japan: There is no shortage of kindness in this part of planet. Kindness comes here in all shapes and sizes.
It comes in those large packets of ready-to-make soups and curries my host mother sends me every winter. It comes in those cute, encouraging notes my friend writes me whenever I miss home. And it comes in those warm smiles my neighbor showers me with whenever we cross paths.
Rely on yourself
Japanese culture promotes self-reliance. I have seen kids as young as 4-5 years old, trotting to school by themselves with their bright caps and tiny backpacks. In many public schools, there are no janitors as kids clean classrooms themselves. High school students pay for their own expenses doing part-time jobs. Learning to depend on yourself is an important asset in personal development, one that is imbibed in Japanese youth from a very early age.
How easy it is to make friends in Japan
When I was a kid, I wanted to travel the world. I wanted to make friends from all over the world. Living in Japan, I did not only only make Japanese friends, but also hung out with people from other parts of the world. Today I am proud to say that I have friends from over 50 countries around the world.
What I learned from my friends is that people are kind everywhere, irrespective of their country, culture and the actions of their governments. I know an Israeli guy and a Palestinian woman who are best friends, despite their differences back home.
Japan’s love for the clock is a tale well known. Once, I was five minutes late to my part-time job interview. They told me to go home and come back on time next day. I got that job and worked there for six months. I was never late again in those six months!
Shikata ga nai
The phrase Shikata ga nai translates to something that cannot be helped or nothing can be done about it. Japanese language is abundant with such exquisite phrases like mottainai, shou ga nai etc.
Shikata ga nai talks about times when we just need to accept reality because we cannot control every situation. So just say ‘shikata ga nai ne’ and move on.
Back home in Pakistan, I once lost a bet with a friend on a football match. My penalty was to give a long, lingering kiss to the dirt-packed street in front of our school. I vomited. I did not eat anything for the rest of day. It was gut-churning. Here in Japan, the streets are so so clean I could kiss tarmac any time of the day.
It is okay to be weird
Japan has a knack for weird things. From penis festivals to insanely long working hours, Japanese culture is rich with little eccentricities. However, no matter what the world thinks of them, Japanese continue to be weird and awesome at the same time. This taught me that it is okay to be weird, as long as you are your authentic and your genuine self.
Dedication to work
Japanese are insane about work. Although there are some loopholes to it, Japanese work culture is certainly admirable. I used to do a part-time job in a Sushi restaurant. In the beginning, I hated every minute of it. I did not like my fellow Japanese employees and I am sure they did not enjoy me either. However, as time passed by, I adjusted to their working environment and began to appreciate my their sense of duty and unwavering commitment to getting job done.
The art of perfection
Wherever you go in Japan, you will find perfection written everywhere. The fruits and vegetables are impeccable, without a slightest of ding on them. The Japanese bento are known worldwide for their finesse. The restaurants are even better. Having had the experience of working in a Japanese restaurant, I marveled at their relentless pursuit for perfection even in the smallest of tasks.
Disasters can be dealt with harmony
It was a mild April night of 2016. I was watching a movie and crunching popcorn with my Japanese friends when the Kumamoto earthquake struck. The popcorn packet flew from my hands and I dashed for the door screaming religious verses. My friends on the other hand grabbed me and quickly pulled me under a table. I was stunned with their calm and sensible approach when everything around us was falling. Later, when the jolting stopped, we got out and took refuge in the parking lot of a convenience store. It was a terrifying experience, not terrifying enough for Japanese to lose their discipline and moral values though. People still stood in queues in convenience stores, there was no traffic rush, and no theft or crime. It taught me that no matter how big a disaster is, it can be dealt with unity, harmony and discipline.
A 21-year old university student figuring life out in the streets of Tokyo. Loves reading, soccer, and hates his part-time job.