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A Scotsman in Japan: It’s Nothing Like the Movies

How many personalities do you have? Some learners say they become a different person when they speak a foreign language. It’s more likely that the language allows us to connect with aspects of our character we haven’t explored yet. Wouldn’t you want to discover what else hides in your personality?

Tom comes from Scotland. A stereotypical image of a Scotsman is very distant from what comes to mind when we think about Japan. You’ll be surprised with the similarities Tom has found between these cultures, and how Japanese he himself has become.

By Tom

After university I had to leave Scotland.

I come from Falkirk, a small town between Glasgow and Edinburgh, and really longed to live somewhere that’s the total opposite. Tokyo is the biggest city in the world, so it seemed like a good choice—a contrast to the rural environment I grew up in.

Japanese Visitors in Scotland

I signed up for Japanese classes at university—one student among a hundred filing a big lecture hall. Many started with a wrong impression that learning Japanese is like learning French or Spanish. Others, the anime fans, thought they’d have a head start. It turned out both of these groups were in the wrong and quickly the number of students dwindled to 10. Each of us got paired with a Japanese exchange student visiting from Tokyo.

The Japanese class went from a 100 people in a lecture hall to 10 dedicated learners.

What I learned in class were just the very basics. It’s chatting to the exchange students that taught me how people speak in real life. For example: Most people know doumo from doumo arigatou gozaimasu (En. “thank you very much”) but it can also mean “hello”, “thank you” or “very”, depending on the context. Since Japanese stores are usually very busy, it’s easier to just say doumo to the server staff than trying to stutter out arigatou gozaimasu while people line up behind you. I was sad when the Japanese students left—they became my friends! Visiting them was another motivation to move to Japan.

A Scottish Visitor in Japan

I had only a vague image of Japan at that time. It seemed a place more in touch with history, still keeping its traditions—like wearing kimonos and celebrating street festivals—but at the same time easier to navigate, because of the number of foreigners already living there.

I planned to go to Japan, like many others, to teach English and downloaded HelloTalk to practice. Everyone in Japan goes through the same education system, and most people have the same problems in English. Through chatting with Japanese people I learned common mistakes they make, and the English words commonly used in everyday Japanese.

Once I knew which city I was going to, I reached out to HelloTalk community to find out if I could meet local people before arriving. One girl, Shino, offered to help me settle in and…also became my girlfriend! It was great to meet her, because the initial experience in Japan wasn’t as smooth as I expected.

Rather than the colourful neon signs and hustle you see in the media, I arrived in a small US-military city of Yokosuka. With just small vendors and convenience stores, it was really nothing like the movies.

Japanese people treat a gaijin (foreigner) very differently. Without the help of a local it’s very difficult to open a bank account, rent an apartment, or get a phone. On top of that, the town’s people developed a bad impression of foreigners, and had a lot of misconceptions. The local police thought that I too was from the military base. There were occasions where they’d stop me on the street, tell me to stop drinking and go home.

After a year in Yokosuka I split up with Shino. She moved to America; I moved to Yokohama.

Gaijin Settles for Temples

By that time I was more settled in my Japanese life. I picked up a slightly unusual Japanese hobby, goshuinchou—it’s collecting special calligraphy stamps (goshuin) when you visit a shrine or a temple. It’s usually something older Japanese people would do, but it’s been having a small resurgence, especially amongst girls.

A teacher’s schedule doesn’t allow for longer trips, but I managed to collect 70 stamps. The furthest I’ve been for that is Nikko Toshogu, but next year I plan to go “stamp-hunting” in Kyoto. My girlfriend Yuka and other friends have started collecting shuin now too!

I also realised that a job at an English school doesn’t give any opportunity to practice Japanese. Foreign teachers are forbidden from using the language at school. With a “one-to-nine” schedule and a one hour commute between Yokohama and Tokyo, where I work, it leaves me little time to learn. I try to study two hours a day, and I use HelloTalk to make connections and meet people in real life.

Maybe you don’t know this, but HelloTalk is one of the default networking apps for foreigners in Japan! When I use the app I’m looking for real connections. I don’t want to use it as a classroom—that I have every day at school—I just want to talk. I made around five good friends on HelloTalk, but the one who I see most often is Yoshi.

What brought us together was a similar life experience. Just like I travelled to Japan with limited knowledge of Japanese, he went for a working holiday in Australia with limited English. We started with a language exchange, but we have similar interests, and since he came back from Australia three months ago we already met around ten times.

HelloTalk is one of the default networking apps for foreigners in Japan!

I also still keep in touch with the Japanese exchange students who visited our school in Scotland. One of them, Kensei, is one of my best friends. He is starting his own marketing company in Japan. His father organised a huge Mikoshi festival in Saitama this summer which I helped out with. It was probably the most unique experience I’ve had in Japan. Another good friend of mine from university is Daisuke. He recently went to Tanzania to volunteer with building shelters and toilets. He slacked on his English studies so he’s been spending more time with me and Kensei to get back to where he needs to be.

A Japanese and Scottish Cocktail

I feel I now have a fuller picture of Japanese people, and I find interesting similarities and differences between the Japanese and Scottish cultures. One topic we can’t omit here is drinking. In Scotland people drink to get drunk, and speed is what matters.

In Japan, drinking plays a different role. It’s an accepted social event shared with your friends, coworkers, and even your boss! In the UK, your boss is the last person who you’d like to see you drunk. Here, if you want to succeed you have to drink with your workmates! I’m a case in point. I got my current job after a drinking event with my friend’s colleagues and managers.

The West has a very limited picture of Japan. When my girlfriend Yuka visited Scotland people were asking her all sorts of silly questions—if Japanese people could read the Latin alphabet, or if she knew about Disney. There is also a stereotype that Japanese people are shy and reserved. They might be shy when they speak English, but otherwise I’d just describe it as being less direct. They don’t shout when they are angry, they just hint at it.

Interestingly I already picked up some of the Japanese ways of behaving. Because of my teaching job, I had to reduce my Scottish accent and learn to speak much slower than a regular UK-speed. When I go back to Scotland people think I treat them as dumb, because, to them, I speak too slow!

I also learned to give people more space. It’s frowned upon here to talk loudly, or on the phone when riding the metro, to eat in public, or take up too much space. When my parents visited I felt a little embarrassed with their loud behaviour. Back in the UK, I’d accidentally drop in arigato gozaimasu at a convenience store, which also gets me some confused looks.

Like in Scotland, there is also a deep sense of tradition in Japan, and with that also a fear of change. My friends in Scotland are jealous of the pictures of beaches and sun I post on social media, but they’d never take the leap to move abroad.

On the Japanese side, people are slightly entrenched in how they learn English, for example. In many cases HelloTalk would be a much better solution for them. Rather than paying thousands of yen for a language school or a private class they could talk to native speakers for free on the app!

With the Tokyo Olympics coming up people are enthusiastic about learning English. Just like I had a limited image of Japan three years ago, they have their own misconceptions. I try to explain to my students and friends about the diversity of the UK, and that Scotland is not just about whisky.

That said, the Gaelic word I teach my Japanese friends is “sláinte”, cheers—very useful in both cultures.

HelloTalk accompanied Tom throughout his Japanese experience. It was his practice ground for teaching English, a way to connect with locals before arriving to Japan, and now remains a go-to tool to build friendships and practice Japanese.

Will Tom become more Japanese in the future? Follow his Japanese life on HelloTalk!

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Written and interviewed by Marta Krzeminska

Featured image by Negativespace from Pexels