This is part 6 of what is intended to be a collection of overview reports on living in Tokyo by someone who is here for longer than a short stay but shorter than a long stay. Hopefully they will be helpful to others in similar situations.
When I arrived in Tokyo I was provided with a short session on cultural awareness, and the instructor explained the concept of Gaijen bonus points. Essentially you will never fit in, and the Japanese will generally notice that you are not one of them and will give you some leeway relative to the unwritten cultural by-laws that to step across would earn someone from the culture the sharp end of an old woman’s stare. When you do manage to follow them you get Gaijen bonus points, and you use those to trade off against the times you fall face-first into the pitfalls.
To me it was a novel way to consider the complicated dealings of living in a different culture. I would hope that everyone who takes on a cross-cultural living situation does so with the intent to try and fit in as much as practical in their host culture, but there will always be times when you stumble into those areas where you simply don’t fit in.
I hope that I have accumulated a sufficient balance of Gaijen bonus points, as a few days ago I cashed in a goodly quantity of them. I had gone out to pick up a few things in the morning, and once in the shopping area I decided to have a look around a few other stores. Before I knew it I was starting to get a little light headed from not having had lunch, and I found myself in a store that had a bakery / café on one of the floors.
It was busy, but I saw several open seats so I took a tray, picked out a couple of items, and paid at the register. My items were put in a bag and I headed to one of the open stools at a long dining bar but noticed as I got closer that someone had put their jacket in the basket under the stool to reserve it. I then noticed a 3 person table that was empty, so I headed there and sat down, only to have a very polite but efficient hostess come over before I could open my lunch bag and point in the direction of a large common table with many seats around it. Figuring that she wanted me to not take up a whole table by myself, I went to the other table and had just sat down in an open chair and gotten the sandwich out of the bag when another hostess made it clear that I needed to get in line behind about 20 other people waiting for a seat in a line just behind the table. Oops – silly me, I should have realized that in a crowded eating area someone would be organizing seating before letting people in line and it was quite rude of me to just skip the queue and go wandering around and find one. That said, when I started to pack up my sandwich, she very quickly indicated I could stay and finish… I could feel the bonus points draining away as I ate.
Later that day my allergies kicked in, unfortunately on the train. I tried as hard as I could, but the chronic sniffling that is cultural acceptable here is not something that comes readily to me. Fully cognizant of the cultural error I was committing, I pulled out a tissue and, as discreetly as possible, blew my nose. Once again, I could feel those bonus points going away.