Essay 5: Socialising in Japan

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This was an eye opener for me! After having found the working environment very structured in the way that you interact with Japanese people, I was not prepared for the huge differences that I encountered when I started to socialise in circles outside of work. I found I had many things to get used to.

In work, interacting with the Japanese was always polite and pleasant. If I ever started conversation it would be politely and sometimes enthusiastically returned. Otherwise, usually I tended to find myself left to myself and few would venture over to my desk. Not an uncommon observation or applicable to just myself either. In the Japanese teaching system, teachers are moved from school to school every few years and so the Staff Room atmosphere is like what you can sometimes find in big companies where staff in different departments will only know each other by face despite sharing the same large office area. I the same way, the English department may not interact greatly with say, the Science department. Perhaps this is due in part to the semi-transient nature of most teachers time in the school.

My first experience of socialising outside of school with the Japanese came with my attendance at series of Enkais. They are a type of work or club related or formal party. At these parties, various formalities would be performed, and often, as I was seen as being a cultural representative of sorts, would be required to give a short speech on some aspect of my home Scotland or UK culture. After, and as the evening progressed and people continued to drink and relax, I soon found the that although people in general would not approach me during the day, in a social environment, lots of people would be very interested in asking all sorts of questions, about my opinions of the Japanese or about what things were like at home. As the nights would go on and more Sake and beer was consumed, inevitably the questions would get more and more daring and outrageous, with a huge amount of interest in how strong a drinker I could be!

After I started making friends with colleagues, I soon found myself invited to the occasional work or English department get together. Almost always, these would be completely men-only events. It was in fact only at the larger Enkais that I ever saw women from work. On these nights, which seemed to be the norm, we would go to "Hostess Bars". In comparison to western pub culture where all the mixed customers will socialise in their groups in often large and loud bars, a huge amount of local Japanese bars were small and discreet with low lighting. The men would sit together and a Japanese female would sit with the group, chat to them and pour their drinks at the table. Someone described the hugely widespread occurrence of these kinds of bars as a modern throwback to the days of the Geisha. On my first visits to these places I often wondered if there was more that was behind the scenes that I never saw. Eventually, I accepted that this wasn't the case and that these places were the norm. I found it easy to relax quickly, especially as they all had karaoke equipment which everybody would enthusiastically take part in.

Karaoke, incidentally, is absolutely EVERYWHERE!

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