Reading ‘Japan – Culture Smart!’

It won’t come as a shock to anyone reading this blog that Japanese culture is very different to British – or western – culture. The importance of bowing, the unspoken rules of gift giving, the importance of religious observation for even the coolest of teenagers, the attitude towards women in the workplace and private life… almost everyone (even those with little to no interest in Japan) is at least vaguely aware of how intrinsic these are to everyday life in Japan. But why exactly are these practices so ingrained? What is the history and cultural significance behind them?

Culture Smart! Japan, The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture seeks to address these questions by delving into many elements of Japanese culture and contextualising them for the western reader. It is a practical but by no means dry guide to Japanese culture that I would readily recommend to anyone visiting Japan.

As I’ve said before on this blog, I’m not an expert on Japanese culture. I’m just very interested in it and my few trips to Japan, coupled with blog research, have helped me to develop my knowledge of Japanese culture and behaviours. I was pleasantly surprised by how in depth Culture Smart! Japan goes, shedding light on elements of Japanese culture that I thought there wasn’t more to learn about.

As this is a guide book, it is helpfully divided into sections, with a clear index allowing for a quick flip-through to the relevant section, should you suddenly need to call on the book for help and get out of a tricky cultural situation. Culture Smart! Japan starts off with a general overview of Japan’s geography and history, followed by its other chapters on cultural issues such as values and attitudes, religion, the Japanese home, gift-giving and conducting business. Pictures and ‘pull out’ case studies in pink boxes help to break the text up, as you would expect from a guide book.

Needless to say, Japan’s unique history as an island nation (sealed off from the rest of the world for about 200 years) plays an important role in Japan’s attitudes and values today. Without going into detail about what Culture Smart! Japan reveals, it is at a crossroads with loss of influence abroad, a changing global field and economic pressures presenting new challenges to the country. Despite this, the bedrock of traditional Japanese culture has been resilient in a period of rapid global and technological change. It is this ‘old meets new’ that continues to define Japanese behaviour today, and it is important for anyone visiting or dealing with Japan to understand that.

Japan’s groupist culture (wa), the importance of the group over the individual, is a constant feature through this guide book. It’s certainly not always easy being a foreigner in Japan, especially in the business world, and even those who have lived in the country for years will tell you they will always feel like an outsider – a gaijin. What may seem like bizarre and outdated Japanese behaviours are helpfully contextualised in Culture Smart! Japan.

Culture Smart! Japan, The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture, written by Paul Norbury and published by Kuperard, is available in the UK at £7.99. For more information, visit Culture Smart. It’s essential reading for anyone wanting to immerse themselves in Japanese culture – whether it’s for work, travel, study, or just for fun!


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