Big in Japan: Welcoming Foreigners and Promoting Respectful Exploration Featured

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Welcoming Foreigners and Promoting Respectful Exploration

Tokyo has been hard at work on the mammoth task of preparing for the Tokyo Olympics and creating ways to make life easier for the throngs of foreigners who will visit, including English translations. Japan is known for its exotic charm, partly because most visitors can’t read the signs, newspapers or menus. This creates a disconcerting, yet incredibly exhilarating feeling that you are on another planet.

Having lived in Tokyo for over 15 years, I don’t want to see English translations everywhere. I’ve always wanted everyone to struggle just like I did before I learned Japanese. There were never many translations on the streets of Tokyo, so getting lost and confused was part of the fun of moving around. But now, with the Olympics coming, Japan is trying to make it a little easier for foreigners to avoid all that trouble and confusion I have so enjoyed. The tradeoff is that a little bit of the Japanese charm has been lost as a result of the translations. For instance, Japanese cabs are not as simple as those in the United States. There are different signs to learn — vacant, occupied, reserved and chartered. If you don’t read Japanese, you might see one of those four words lit up and think the taxi is available, only to then be let down as it whizzes by you. To avoid this, many taxis now have English translations under the Japanese characters. While that makes it easier for foreigners to hail a cab, a familiar situation of daily life in Japan has disappeared. Similar updates are being made in train stations, restaurants and other places where many people gather.

Avoiding trouble is as much a Japanese concept as is keeping the unique culture and heritage of Japan alive. This, of course, is a conflict. But Japan is willing to make things more English-friendly to ensure a safe and smooth Olympic experience for all.

Another hot topic in Japan is the prevalence of tourists in places like Kyoto, which is disrupting private homes, temples and people.

What many tourists don’t understand about Japan is that the country doesn’t depend on tourism as its only source of income. It would be easy for a tourist to see a geisha or maiko san in Kyoto and think, “I’ve just got to get a picture with her!” and assume that this is appropriate behavior. Many Japanese do not speak English, so it is often easier just to go along with a foreigner’s request. But rest assured, unless you are in an area designated for tourists, that geisha/maiko san is going to or from work and definitely does not want families and children touching her ornate and expensive outfit. The same goes for private houses and gardens. Architecture in Japan is so different from the rest of the world that you can’t blame tourists for their curiosity. However, tourists are often so giddy from being on vacation and so far from home, that manners and common sense can get thrown out the window, leaving things damaged and interrupting the local people’s day-to-day lives. Many locals in Kyoto are getting so fed up with the situation that English signs are popping up all over the place forbidding entry to private roads and property.

As an American living in Japan, I feel like I am constantly representing the United States. No matter how integrated I am into Japanese society, that is how I’m perceived. What tourists need to know is that in any country you visit, locals see you as wearing a big flag on your forehead. For better or worse, you are your country, and bad behavior leaves a much greater impression than good behavior. If, for example, one Australian is thrown out of an event for being drunk, the 20 well-behaved Australians with him are forgotten about. All the locals involved in throwing the one drunk guy out will equate all Australians with being drunks for a long, long time.

So, to those of you who will visit Japan, welcome! But please use this as an opportunity to make your country look good in the eyes of the ever-curious locals. The Japanese are extremely welcoming to foreigners and you will be blown away by their hospitality, but just remember, a little extra common sense goes a long way when you are far from home.


The complete article can be found in Issue #280 of the Tokyo Journal.

Written By:

Marty Friedman
After reaching legendary status as a guitarist racking up over 13 million albums sold with Megadeth, Cacophony and solo with a dozen albums, Marty Friedman stunned the heavy metal community by leaving his home country of the USA to make his musical contribution to the growing J-pop scene in Tokyo. He soon went on to appear in chart-topping songs with count- less artists in Japan, and to play Tokyo Dome and Budokan several times. Again doing the unexpected, he has also written two bestselling books in Japanese, acted in major motion pictures, done TV commercial campaigns for Coca- Cola and Sumitomo Bank, as well as over 600 television shows, hosting and guesting on every possible kind of program from comedy, political, cooking, music, education and everything in between. Marty Friedman’s latest album “Tokyo Jukebox 3” came out in 2020.

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