I was once part of the “Lost Laowai” club. Dalian was my hood for nearly three years (2009 – 2012). I later made my way to Bangkok, Thailand, where I joined the “Lost Farang” club for another three years (2012 – 2015). But now I’ve been part of the “Lost Gaijin” club over here in Japan’s Ibaraki prefecture for just shy of a year and a half.
Many of us laowai sometimes wonder what it’s like for our fellow laowai living in neighboring Asian countries. Is the grass really greener? Do they experience Bad Thailand Days™ or Bad Japan Days™? Do the mainlanders’ annoying quirks exist in other parts of Asia? How are Westerners treated in these countries? How does true Thai and Japanese cuisine compare to mainland Chinese cuisine?
This article is part one in a series of articles I’ve written comparing and contrasting China to both Thailand and Japan. Since I’m currently still living in Japan and everything is fresh in my mind, I’ll start with it.
For two neighboring countries, China and Japan really have some stark contrasts between them. In fact I’d boldly say that China and Japan are the two most contrasting countries in all of Asia. But what makes them so different? Read on to find out ten of the gravest differences between the Middle Kingdom and the Land of the Rising Sun, two rival countries with centuries of animosity between them.
Let’s start by mentioning the elephant in the room. No one thing is more polarizing between China and Japan than their approaches towards manners. It’s easy to assume that Japan wins hands down on this one, but does it really? Let’s take a closer look.
In China, quite simply put, common courtesy – that is treating others the way you wish to be treated – is practically nonexistent. I’ve been to almost fifteen different Asian countries, and not a single one of them comes close to having as many rude mannered people as the mainland.
Japan on the other hand is a country where people have an extreme approach towards common courtesy, almost to the point of obnoxiousness and unnecessarily slowing things down. So rather than coming across as rude like the mainlanders, the Japanese often come across as downright awkward.
So which would I rather have, aggressive people without a care in the world, or robot-like people that have a knack for making every situation more awkward than it really needs to be? If I’m coming straight from China, the Japanese way is like a breath of fresh air, but vice versa is also true – it’s nice dealing with people who can be real with you and hold nothing back after dealing with robots for years.
Sure, the Japanese love their rice and noodles just as much as the Chinese, but the similarities in the two countries’ cuisines pretty much end there. Chinese cuisine is all about taste, practicality, and quantity, but Japanese cuisine is all about subtlety, presentation, and quality.
Stir-frying is surely the most common cooking method in Chinese cuisine, but other than the occasional stir-fried noodles, it’s not that common at all in Japanese cuisine, which is all about boiled and minimally-cooked food.
Chinese cuisine is quite regionally diverse, so it can be hard to generalize. Lamb kebabs and naan from the west, xiao long bao from the east, guo bao rou from the north, and dim sum from the south – I could go on forever.
Japanese cuisine, however, is not nearly as diverse and is actually a bit rigid. Ramen, udon, seafood, sushi, and barbecue sums up about 80% of what’s available.
Chinese has a tendency to use the lowest of low quality ingredients and cuts of meat, many of which Westerners would throw straight in the trash, yet Japanese is all about using the highest quality and freshest ingredients.
Chinese is often presented in a pitifully sloppy way that makes it resemble pig’s food, but Japanese is world-renowned for its beautiful presentation.
One Chinese plate is often enough to feed two people, but one Japanese plate is often smaller than a kid’s plate back in America.
Chinese has a wide array flavors – spicy, sweet, sour, salty, rich, etc. – but Japanese food revolves around subtle flavors, which I personally find quite bland. Condiments and spices are not big in Japan.
Meals in China can be polarizing – many are so outstanding that you wanna tell all your friends back home, but just as many are awful and repugnant. Silkworm pupae kebabs, anyone? Yet over here in Japan I’ve never had a “wow!” moment when dining out – rather every meal is “well that was… acceptable.”
3. Cleanliness Indoors vs. Outdoors
I found this one kind of funny. We all know how badly the Chinese tend to treat public spaces. Spitting, littering, the looting of anything of value, vandalism via sticker ads, ripping things to hell, and just a general lack of care and cleanliness are all to be expected when outside one’s home in China. But funny enough, when you go inside many Chinese people’s homes, they’re very well-kept and tidy. Sure, I’ve been in a mainlander’s home or two that was pretty abysmal, but most of them were surprisingly neat. The same can also be said about the interior of their cars.
Go to Japan, and things get flipped inside out. Public spaces are immaculately clean to the point of obsession. No one spits, no one litters, no one steals, no one vandalizes, nor does anyone even eat or drink anything in public (besides in restaurants). But go into a Japanese’s home or car, and get ready to see a mess. Dirty clothes strewn about, food containers and wrappers here and there, signs of hording, and lots of toys and other random crap on the floor or in your seat. This is one of the many reasons the Japanese rarely invite people who aren’t family or close friends into their homes.
China is home to some absolutely putrid public restrooms. Walking into one is a shock to one’s senses – the smells, the sights, the sounds – they’re truly awful. And let’s not forget the abundance of squatters in the mainland, many a Westerner’s worst enemy. Oh, and what about the lack of toilet paper and hand soap? Nothing’s worse in China than running to a restroom to go number two, only to realize you forgot to carry toilet paper with you that day!
Japanese public restrooms on the other hand? They’re like a work of art. They’re often so spotlessly clean that you could eat dinner off the floor. Disgusting, but yeah, you really could. Pleasant scents often fill the air, too. And have you ever seen a Japanese toilet? The lids have all kinds of special functions like a seat warmer, a vaginal water cleaner, an anal water cleaner, a flushing sound imitator, and a deodorizer. Forgot your toilet paper? No worries, as your toilet lid will get you all cleaned up. Many bathrooms are also stocked with toilet seat sanitizer, foam hand soap, and a jet engine air hand dryer. I always feel so fresh leaving a Japanese restroom!
5. Personal Freedom
China is far from the most politically free country on our planet, but as we laowai also know, China is incredibly free when it comes to personal freedoms. Other than a few cultural landmines to avoid here and there, you can often do whatever you want in China (assuming you’re not trying to ruffle any political feathers).
Wanna eat some smelly food on the bus? Go for it.
Wanna talk loudly on your cell phone in public? Then why not?
Wanna carry a bunch of outside drinks into a private restaurant, that way you don’t have to pay for the restaurant’s overpriced drinks? You’re welcome to.
Wanna do some loud renovations in your apartment at 4:30 AM? No one’s gonna stop you.
Wanna wear shorts and a T-shirt to your teaching job? Awesome! You’ll look so cool!
But Japan should be called “The Land of a Million Rules.” If it flies in China, chances are it doesn’t fly in Japan.
Wanna chat with your buddy on the metro on the way home from work? Well, you probably shouldn’t, because that’s rude and everyone will certainly give you the evil eye.
Wanna throw your trash away in a public trash bin? The problem is trash must be sorted in a million different ways, so public trash bins are few and far between. Carry that trash with you all the way home.
Wanna enjoy a snack during your daily walk outside? Food is only meant to be consumed at restaurants, you idiot.
Wanna dress casual to your preschool teaching job? Forget it, you fool! Only a business suit and necktie will do.
There’s a pervasive “walking on egg shells” feeling when it comes to just about anything Japan. It seems like you’re always breaking some obscure rule. But the trade off to all this is peace and order.
So which would you rather have, ultimate personal freedom accompanied by an extreme lack of common courtesy and a dash of chaos, or absolute minimal personal freedom accompanied by lots of personal obligation, awkwardness, but also harmony and selflessness?
6. Inferiority vs. Superiority Complex
I’ve never been to a country where as many people wanted to get out as China. Chinese from all social classes often tell me their dreams of moving somewhere like the US and getting a green card. But in a very contradictory way, the Chinese are also hyper-sensitive to any criticism of their country. If you or anyone foreign says anything negative about their country, get prepared for a knee-jerk reaction. And how many times have us foreigners been unabashedly reminded again and again by our Chinese friends about how long China’s history is and the culinary delights of Chinese cuisine? Or how Western countries all conspire to “provoke” Our China™?
The Japanese on the other hand have strong beliefs about their country and its “great” ways, but rarely do they feel the need to remind you, rather it shines through in their actions. In the mind of many Japanese, their country’s way of doing things is the only correct way. To hell with any foreign ideas and concepts! And of course Japanese cuisine is the “best” in the world – why would they even need to tell you that? Shouldn’t you already know? I’ve also never met a single Japanese who expressed a desire to more or less permanently move abroad. I’m sure they must be out there somewhere, but I’ve yet to meet to meet them.
7. A Thirst for All Things Western (Or Lack Thereof)
The mainland Chinese really have an unquenchable thirst for just about anything from the West, as they often associate the West with status, progressive thinking, and “hip” pop culture. Consumer products, political happenings, how things are done in the West vs. China, sports teams, American TV shows and movies, the English language, etc. – the Chinese can’t get enough of this stuff.
As an American teaching English in China, I was always getting probed about things from my country. How much does an iPhone cost in America? What do you think about Obama? Is it true ALL Americans have guns? What do Americans really think about China? Who’s your favorite NBA player? I often felt more like I was giving a cultural exchange than teaching them how to speak my mother language.
And all us laowai have surely met our fair share of language leeches – that is, people who aggressively pursue foreigners for the primary goal of improving their foreign language skills. I once had my QQ number plastered on the Chinese internet (without my permission) by an anonymous person, just so strangers could add me and practice English with me. I also had complete strangers latch on to me in my day to day walks, barraging me with the typical list of questions they ask all laowai.
Japan is a whole different ball game. The Japanese strongly prefer products from their own country – Japanese cars, Japanese electronics, Japanese TV shows, Japanese clothing brands, movies, comic books, etc. Sure, there are some people out there that enjoy Western things, but compared to China, they are far less noticeable. My students ask me almost nothing about my homeland. And when I mention seemingly world-famous Western things to Japanese people, like say the latest smash-hit Christopher Nolan movie, I often just get looked at like a deer in headlights.
As for language leeches, they’re called “gaijin hunters” in Japan, and from my experience, they’re 98% old men. They are far fewer and much further between than in China.
I heard Japan had its big “foreign craze” back in 1980s and 90s, but I see very little traces of it in 2016. I don’t expect special treatment anywhere I go, but it’s nice to know that I can break the ice wherever I go in China just by being a Westerner. It can get tiring at times for sure, but it’s one of things that makes China so much fun. Japan just feels so much more isolating.
8. Cost of Living
China can be as cheap or as expensive as you want it to be.
If you want to “go local” and save money by eating 5 yuan a bowl noodles at dodgy hole-in-the-wall restaurants with questionable cooking practices, you can.
If you want to live in a cheap 300 yuan a month apartment resembling a prison cell, you can.
If you want to get around exclusively by 1 or 2 yuan buses, you can.
But you could also eat every day at astronomically expensive restaurants catering to those who want to show their “face” and status.
You could live in a 10,000 yuan a month penthouse at the top of a high-rise in a gigantic city like Shanghai.
You could get around exclusively by taxi.
You could pay significantly less than back home in the West, about the same, or significantly more. The choice is yours, and that’s one of things that makes China great.
Japan on the other hand is almost always going to be the same or more than you’re used to paying back home.
5 Chinese yuan would only get you a small piece of candy in Japan.
300 yuan wouldn’t even get you a single night in a two-star hotel in po’dunk Japanese town, let alone a month in an apartment.
Buses and subway rides in Japan cost the same as a taxi ride back in China. Shinkansen (Japan’s high-speed railway system) tickets cost twice as much to go half the distance as those in China.
Other than maybe quality clothing and secondhand products, almost anything in Japan is going to cost several times what it does in China, especially anything involving human labor.
Taxes and government dues can also eat up almost a third of your paycheck in Japan, very much unlike China, where income tax is reasonably low.
The sad part about all this is that an English teacher’s salary is no better in Japan than in China. Japan is completely off the radar for most budget travelers to Asia too, and for very good reason. China is only getting more and more expensive with each passing year, but when it comes to basic living and traveling expenses, it triumphs over Japan nine times out of ten.
9. Safety Standards (Or Lack Thereof)
We all know what a joke China’s safety standards can be. Workers, particularly those in the manual labor industry, seem to have very little regard for their lives or others’ in how they approach safety at their jobs. These lax attitudes towards safety not only manifest themselves at the workplace, but also in everyday life. It seems like severe injury, death, and disease are always lurking just right around the corner when living life in China, and that can make one very paranoid. Foreigners often speculate as to how much damage is being done to their bodies by staying in the Middle Kingdom long-term.
But over in Japan, they do things on the polar opposite end of the spectrum. In fact Japan is one of the most safety paranoid countries I have ever seen in this world. It’s a very risk-adverse country.
Four way stops are replaced with seemingly unnecessary traffic lights.
Anyone and everyone, sometimes even infants, are wearing those creepy surgical masks.
Free hand sanitizer is readily available in every restaurant and store.
Fresh food only a few hours old is considered inedible.
Air pollution and food scandals are almost nonexistent.
But the strange thing about all this is the Japanese always seem sick and weak. Walk around and half the people around you look like they’re feeling under the weather. Surely all this oversafety isn’t helping them build up their immune systems, is it? But all in all, you could easily add years to your life by living in Japan, rather than losing them like in China, and that’s something you can’t put a price on.
10. Punctuality (Or Lack Thereof)
When it comes to making arrangements in China, people tend to say one thing, yet do another. Arranged times are merely suggestions, not definite plans. If you made plans to meet someone at 4 PM, and you show up at the agreed location at exactly 4 PM, don’t be surprised if that person calls you at 4:15 PM to let you know they’ll be 30 minutes late, only for them to ultimately show up at 5 PM. The reverse can also happen – you agreed to meet at 4 PM, yet the other person shows up at 3:45 PM and blows up your phone again and again because you’re not there yet.
But show up just five minutes late to work in Japan and see what happens. You might get a verbal warning from your manager, an unpleasant phone call from your manager’s supervisor, and finally an email from the company owner. The Japanese are complete Nazis when it comes to punctuality. I’m glad the Japanese take other people’s time seriously completely unlike the Chinese, but I think everybody deserves a 5-10 minute buffer in just about any situation. Not so in Japan.
In this regard, I find both the Chinese and the Japanese odd. In America it seems like punctuality greatly varies from individual to individual. I know just as many chronically-late types as I do always punctual ones. The entire nation doesn’t generally follow one particular pattern.
I can think of no two countries in Asia with as much bad blood between one another as China and Japan. Japan may only be a stone’s skip away over the sea from China, but the two really are like fire and ice. I can honestly say the average Westerner would feel more culture shock going directly from China to Japan (or vice versa) than directly to them from their homes countries. The differences are that steep.
If you’ve spent significant time between both China and Japan, how do you feel? Do you agree with what I wrote above? Did I leave anything out? Let me know in the comment section below, as I’d love to read what others with experience think. And stay tuned, as next time I’ll be pointing out the shocking similarities between these two great nations.