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The “clash of cultures” is an interesting phenomenon whereby diverging customs, as well as the attitudes, morals and opinions, of two dissimilar cultures are revealed.
Arab News Japan spoke with three Japanese people who either live in the Middle East or have developed an interest for the region from their experiences. Their comments have been lightly edited to showcase the differences that exist between the two cultures, and the views that they developed about the region as a result.
A particular dissimilarity between Japanese and Middle Eastern cultures, according to a Japanese who lives in Lebanon, is the lack of assistance in the provision of directions to pedestrians.
“A car crash occurred close to me in Beirut one time, and the drivers stood in front of each other violently screaming. Neither was interested in listening to the other. It seemed like a battle of sound, or at least it sounded like that because of my lack of Arabic comprehension,” the resident said.
“To me, Arabic speech in itself sounded like an argument. Perhaps it was a cultural thing that I wasn’t used to, but what really bothers me about my many years of experience in Lebanon is the misguidance I receive in directions. One person, for example, may guide me to the right. On asking another person for directions, they point me in the absolute opposite direction. I was surprised. Where is the right way?”
The resident added: “In Japan, locals tend to assume that if someone is asking for directions, they probably need to be guided step by step. On that basis, people tend to provide the full details, or if possible, walk the person toward their destination. I think the reason is that Japanese culture strongly emphasizes putting oneself in the other person’s shoes.”
Japan has a “certain way of doing something,” whether it is greeting someone or guiding them, the resident said.
“Matters are rarely as spontaneous as what Japanese people experience in the Middle East. Although many Japanese people might enjoy the impulsive spirit exhibited by many Arabs, it may also be perceived as ‘chaotic.’
“I admired how my neighbor once kindly screamed out of her living room window to stop the bus so that I could catch it, and he did stop. But the price? No actual bus stops. The only stops are when the driver meets a friend,” the Japanese resident said.
The lack of formality when it comes to public transport is very different to the Japanese approach.
Mika Miyoshi, a Japanese multicultural consultant, discussed how her love of exploring different cuisines led to her becoming fascinated with Middle Eastern culture
“I live in Tokyo and love Arab cuisine. I frequently visit Arab restaurants and food vendors from time to time, and chat with the owners. Through that, I’ve met people from Egypt, Syria and Lebanon. They tend to announce how their people have a great image of the Japanese. I think they’re honest, and not because I am a customer.”
Some also discuss the popularity of Japanese subcultures, Miyoshi said, while many are familiar with Japanese anime characters.
“There is a limited presence of people from the Middle East within Japanese society, so it is fair to say that most Japanese people are not well-informed about Middle Easterners and their cultures. In my case, I have friends from those areas, so I have a better understanding of Arab people than the average Japanese.
“Some people may think that Arabs in Tokyo are super-rich, but I believe this is a biased image. Others may have been influenced by American TV dramas, and their immersion might have influenced them to think of Arabs as bad or violent people because of the way they are being represented. Personally, I tend to hear about the good characteristics of people from the Middle East,” said Miyoshi.
Kai Ishigami, a Japanese student who attended the American University of Beirut in Lebanon from 2016 to 2020, elaborated on her experiences during her time there and explained the ideas she developed about the culture through her interactions with young people in Lebanon.
“I believe each person has specific characteristics, and it does not always depend on their nationalities. I truly appreciate the people who I have met from the Middle East. In my time there, I was supported, welcomed and assisted in so many ways. Since I lived in a university dormitory, I closely interacted with the students who resided there, some of whom were my roommates,” Ishigami said.
“My first roommate showed me around Beirut, and often took me to local Lebanese restaurants. Moreover, we went to grocery stores almost every weekend to get our daily necessities. The first thing I noticed about Lebanese people is that they are quite friendly and welcoming, even though I am a foreigner.”
While the observations made by three Japanese people about Middle Eastern culture do not constitute a representative sample of the population’s perception, their experiences reveal specific differences between both cultures and offer a glimpse of how foreigners learn to establish themselves in a new environment while also evaluating the ways in which it contrasts with their own.