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Filling in Cultural Gaps in Japan
The new perspectives you are exposed to as a foreigner living abroad are some of the most wonderful benefits of doing so. However, as amazing as experiencing new cultures is, it can also pose a challenge when cultural differences are misinterpreted.
The babysitters and families of the CareFinder community represent more than 60 countries from around the world, each bringing with them singular identities and experiences that inform their interactions. In Japan, a society with many unique customs which also differ greatly from Western norms, it can be confusing for families new to the country, especially when working with a Japanese babysitter.
One of the best things about using a local sitter is exposing your children to local culture. To avoid miscommunication, it's a good idea to understand some of the most common cultural gaps foreigners can encounter in Japan.
(Extreme) Hospitality, or Omotenashi
While politeness and hospitality are important in many cultures, Japan takes it to another level! "Omotenashi" is even touted as a draw in the tourism push ahead of next year's Olympics. While putting in extra effort to be nice is rarely a bad thing, the extent to which Japanese people can go to make someone feel comfortable can sometimes have the opposite effect. So eager to please, they can overlook (or disregard) a "no, thank you" or other indication of unease. Keep in mind, they are not trying to be pushy, they are just trying to make you feel valued and respected.
Also, they are not used to direct refusals, which brings up the next point...
Japanese culture, as has been stated above, is exceedingly polite. And the language follows suit. Which means that often, when delivering negative feedback or other bad news, it can take a while, if ever, to get to the point. It can also prove difficult to have the direct, matter-of-fact conversations that are required ahead of a babysitting job, including rules, logistics and even pay. It is rude to interrupt someone while they are speaking in Japan, so just because there aren't any questions interjected while you're rattling off directions, you cannot assume you're both on the same page. There can also be the assumption on their part that you are able to read between the lines when they've said something. Be sure to have explicit discussions before, during and after any job!
In some countries, especially America, tipping for services is common and even expected. Not so in Japan! If you try to give your sitter a "little something extra" here, they will often be confused and try to return your change to you. Your best bet is to reward a babysitter (or anyone who you feel has gone above and beyond in service to you) with a small present rather than cash.
If you've spent any time on a train in Tokyo, you know that being nose-to-nose with strangers is a fact of life here. There is not as much aversion to being close to someone in Japan as in many Western countries. It's important to remember that Japan is a society that has evolved in a mountainous region, with little living space for millions of people. They are accustomed to and comfortable with sharing the space they inhabit. They may not always realize a foreigner views their physical closeness negatively.
Jokes and Compliments
If you've ever heard comedy from around the world, you know that, even if performed in the same language, it is one thing that very often does not translate well across cultural lines. It's no different here! Common jokes Japanese people may make to one another, or to you, are not meant to be offensive, though they may be received that way. After all, this is a country that places the utmost importance on respect and politeness! Always keep in mind that a joke (or even a "compliment" which seems back-handed or inappropriate) should be considered through the lens of culture.
We know it can often be the "little things" which add up and lead us to feel badly about our interactions with others, even when no harm is meant. Here's a quick list of some other Japanese habits and customs to be aware of:
Greetings: Handshakes are not the norm! Bowing is. Don't be offended if your sitter does not immediately extend their arm when arriving at your home.
Sneezing: Blowing noses in public is a no-no and saying "bless you" after a sneeze isn't done. They aren't ignoring your sniffles; it just doesn't occur to say anything about them.
Eye Contact: Your sitter isn't being shifty! It's not common to sustain eye contact when speaking in Japan so don't be alarmed if you're having a discussion and they aren't meeting your gaze.
Slurping: Your kids may find it funny, but noisy noodles are no big deal in Japan! It's not bad manners to slurp.
All countries and cultures have their "quirks" and it is important to be respectful of each when living abroad. Having a foreign babysitter can pose some challenges in this regard, as you don't necessarily want to forego your comfort for their customs when trusting someone with your children. But with a little background and understanding, it is much easier for everyone to successfully navigate cultural gaps and have a wonderful experience.