Time and Cultural Differences

One of the differences between Japanese and Americans is how time plays a role in life. Japanese people in general are very punctual and typically show up a few minutes early for appointments, parties, meetings, etc.. Here in the U.S., there are punctual people (German descents?), but it’s not unusual to meet people who are always late.

One of the most shocking experiences I have had since I moved here happened when I was going to the University of Washington. I was invited for a dinner by a couple, friends of mine from college. They told me to come over around 5:00pm. I didn’t want to be late and made sure I arrived there a few minutes before 5:00. But, when I got there they weren’t there. I waited outside their apartment for more than 30 minutes, and my friends finally showed up. They said they went shopping. I didn’t get upset and it was kind of funny to me, but I couldn’t imagine how this would happen in Japan. Either one of them stays home, or they would let me know somehow they might not be back on time. This American friend was probably exceptional, since he was late just about every single time we got together. I remember the worst was when I invited him over for dinner; he was 4 hours late. Just about every Japanese person feels “I shouldn’t make the other party wait,” but here in America, since most people seem to think being late for a few minutes is no big deal, it is no big deal as a result.

I also learned quickly the starting time for a party is very much fluid in this country. In Japan, if the invitation says it starts at 6:00pm, most people would show up 5-10 minutes before 6:00, thinking being late is rude. But here, if you show up to a party exactly on time, you are most likely to be the first guest, and it’s rather, a kind of embarrassing. I don’t know if people still use the expression, “fashionably late,” and I’m not sure if it is more of a West Coast phenomenon, but partygoers in Seattle most typically start showing up at least 15 to 30 minutes after the invitation indicates. Some parties back in my college years didn’t really start until 8:00 or 9:00, even though the invitation said 5:00pm. What’s tricky is some potlucks. I don’t want to be the first to arrive and get there like an hour late, but sometimes I discover most good food is gone by then.

Speaking of time expectations in the business environment, I have routinely experienced the visitors from Japan and I have to wait for the person we made an appointment to show up at least for a few minutes. Of all the instances, the worst case happened in Los Angeles 15 or so years ago. I was bringing an executive from Tokyo, visiting the director of the LA office of the affiliate company; he made us wait for more than 30 minutes. My client told me this guy had made him wait every single time. If it were in Japan, when guests from overseas were visiting, I would imagine the host would be ready a few minutes before the appointment time and would be waiting for them, not the other way around. If the host were late for a few minutes, they would apologize profusely.

When I exchange emails, both personal and business, I receive responses much faster when writing to friends or business associates in Japan. They normally apologize when writing back after more than a day. Communications in Japan are much denser and quicker; relationships and connections are much more valued and emphasized. Here in the U.S., each person is more like an island and one seems to value his/her own time much more than other people’s—writing back sooner than later is not as important as whatever activity he/she is engaged at that time. “The other party can wait,” everyone is thinking that way. When that is the norm, you don’t judge people using the other standard. In Japan, if you make other people wait (for an appointment or email, returning a phone call), you risk getting criticized because the norm and standard are different.

After living in the U.S. for decades, I’m a bit schizophrenic. I used to be totally punctual, showing up to an appointment always 5-10 minutes earlier. In more recent years, I went through several years finding myself habitually late in social situations, while still making sure I get there early for business appointments. I don’t write back emails as fast as my Japanese friends do, but I reply to texts much more quickly than most American friends. I hate being late, especially the rushing part, and I think it’s better to be prompt for communications both for social and business. This is one area I feel it’s better to tap into my “Japanese” in me more than “American” part of my identity.

Bliss of Music

Music has been my passion since I was very young. The earliest music memory I have in terms of getting hooked is, my aunt gave me a record of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” when I was in 2nd or 3rd grade. I was a conductor of an imaginary orchestra in the stereo, using a chopstick. When I ask people what kind of music they like, many say, “I like all kinds of music.” Then they often add, “except country,” “except rap,” or “except heavy metal.” I actually did love just about any kind of music when I was growing up: Classical, Baroque, Medieval, Rock, Folk, Blues, some Jazz, Avant-garde, Celtic, Andean, traditional Japanese, Japanese folk (‘minyo’), Eastern European, Middle Eastern…

But rock music above all dominated my youth years. It started with the Beatles when I was in the 5th or 6th grade, then Pink Floyd, then prog rock like Yes, ELP, King Crimson, Procol Harum… Then I discovered Genesis in the early 70’s on my own. One of magazine articles reviewing an album caught my eyes; the word to describe their music was “mysterious.” None of my friends in my junior high ever heard of them, and I kind of kept it a secret, “it’s my band.” I remember going to a film concert in Tokyo by myself. Back in those days, there was no MTV, rock music on TV was very rare. It was the first time in Japan they ever showed anything Genesis with Peter Gabriel on film. Everyone in the small room was much older than me, like college-age, and they were crying. On the way back home on the subway, I was thinking, “music will be a big part of my life.”

I came to America to study music, but was not interested in becoming a musician or performer. I was more of a fan of British rock, but I thought since rock n’ roll originated from the U.S., it’d be good to learn the roots of rock music. One of the music teachers in Seattle Central Community College was a jazz musician, and he introduced me to the field of ethnomusicology. I got a B.A. in general studies with an emphasis on ethnomusicology from the University of Washington and went on to graduate school studying ethno (as we called it). I was there for years and years, but never finished my graduate degree—I look back now and feel it’s one of the blessings in disguise in my life, not getting caught up in Academia.

People often say they listen to music according to their mood. For me, it’s not my mood how I select what to listen to; I pick “right’ music for the particular time and place, like music for the movie to a particular scene. When I was much younger, I started a day very early in the morning with European Medieval music like David Munrow’s Early Music Consort. In the mid-morning hours, I chose Baroque like J.S. Bach, Vivaldi and Corelli. Then in the early afternoon, Classical composers like Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven seemed perfect. Later in the afternoon were for Romantic composers like Schubert, Mendelssohn and Rachmaninoff. Evening hours, I often chose impressionists and the early 20th music like Debussy, Scriabin and Stravinsky. Later at night, I picked more experimental or electronic music, such as Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Philip Glass. Basically, I went through entire music history in each day.

Nowadays, I hardly listen to music at home. Most of my listening enjoyment is in the car while I’m driving. I pick a tape (yes, I still use cassette tapes) and if it doesn’t feel right, I have to pick something else. When I’m driving very early in the morning, for some reason, I pick female country singers like Patti Lovelace, Trisha Yearwood and Suzy Bogguss. Celtic music also suits in the morning hours, such as Silly Wizard, Ossian and Planxty. Driving around in the afternoon, what feels right is mostly 80’s alternative music including Robyn Hitchcock, Crowded House, Billy Bragg and Richard Barone. When I’m driving on freeway, 80’s synthe-pop is perfect, such as New Order, The Cure, Depeche Mode and OMD. When I’m driving at night, I normally pick prog-rock such as Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, Gentle Giant and Pink Floyd. Weather is also an important factor to select right music. When it’s raining, somehow Morrissey is perfect. Sunny summer days call for UB 40, Talking Heads and Green Day. Cocteau Twins and Lush are perfect for driving in a snowy or foggy envelope.

When I’m driving on the freeway at night, the moving sights of passing cars and city lights transfer me to another dimension. My favorite music, exquisitely matching its scene and frame, provides the soundtrack for the real-life “movie” I’m in—I feel totally blessed how much great music I have had access to and collected over the years. I also count my blessings for being able to connect with so many wonderful souls because of my passion for music.

Business Cards

Back in the early 90’s, I was visiting a well-known restaurant outside of Seattle. I thought I could help them if they had Japanese visitors, and also I could bring some guests from Japan to them. I talked to someone at their office, told my idea and offered, “Here is my business card.” She said, “Don’t give it to me, I’ll lose it.” I remember I was rather shocked and even somewhat offended, thinking “This never happens in Japan.”

Another thing that’s surprising to me over the years is, when I meet someone new in a business setting and ask for his business card, it’s not unusual that he says, “Let me see if I have any,” and finding no cards in his wallet. Basically business people here carry so few business cards to begin with. Or, even worse, when I go to a business networking event and meet someone who has his or her own business and does not have their business cards. That does not make sense to me. Also, I have met some Americans who gave me their card almost like throwing it at me, or who gave me an old wrinkled card or even something written on it. Japanese business people typically carry a separate fancy case for business cards, not just sticking a few in their wallet. Each card is pristine; giving less than a perfect business card is unthinkable in Japan.

Japanese people apparently have a different attitude towards business cards. When I meet someone from Japan, offer my business card and they happen to run out of their ‘meishi’, my new friend always apologizes as if it’s rude. Americans who do business with Japanese people or who study Japanese language and culture often demonstrate to me the “ritual” of exchanging business cards: you are supposed to use both hands, making sure it faces the right direction to the receiver, then bow and say, “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.” Yes, that’s how to do it, but the point is not so much you need to do the ritual. What’s important is understanding of what’s behind the ritual; a business card to the Japanese person is not just a little piece of paper with contact info or and an advertisement tool. Giving you their business card is, in some ways, presenting a piece of themselves.

It’s been discussed millions of times that Americans are highly individualistic and Japanese are much more group-oriented. I’m not sure if people really appreciate what it means. The importance of business cards in Japan derives from the fact that who you are is commonly in large part defined by what organization you belong to and what position you are filling in its hierarchy (title in the organization). This information is vital to how people relate to each other and which form of language (polite or casual) you are supposed to use. Being part of a group comes first; expressing individuality can be frowned upon or even oppressed. The benefit of the “groupism” is the sense of belonging, being part of a community, and the support and safety net it provides.

The Japanese do appreciate unique and strong individuals as well, especially artists and creative people. I think it would be a good idea for a Japanese person to be more in touch with his/her individual gift and uniqueness. Criticism of excessive American individualism and me-me-me egocentrism is nothing new, but I must admit I often feel many Americans tend to act me-first and undermine community. Valuing business cards per se does not create a genuine sense of belonging, but understanding and appreciating other ways people in different cultures perceive things hopefully will lead us toward being in a larger whole—global community.

Are “Old” People Old?

I don’t think the word “old” in “old people” is nice…or kind.

You are probably thinking “It’s because you are getting old and you don’t like to be called old.” I decided some time ago I would never get old, so that’s not it. I had felt something not quite right about the word, and I realized in Japanese the word “old” 古い ‘furui’ was not used referring to people. You could say ‘furui hon,’ (old book), ‘furui kuruma,’ (old car), but you never say ‘furui hito’ (old person) or ‘kare wa furui’ (he is old). The word in Japanese 老人 ‘rojin’ means 高齢者 ‘koureisha’ which means literally a “high-age person.” Another word for “old people” in Japanese is 年寄り ‘toshiyori.’ ‘Toshi’ means “year,” ‘yori’ means “gathered,” or “layered; so,’ toshiyori’ is a person who accumulated years.

When I point this out, people normally say, that’s because Asians respect “old” people. I don’t know that’s actually true. Do young people in Japan always respect the elderly and treat them well?Japanese language has a polite form and casual form, and you have to use the polite form when you talk to someone “older.” If you are raised in Japan, you are expected to behave differently towards the elderly, with 礼儀 ‘reigi’ (manners, politeness). Language is more than just words; it does shape us and the culture, but I doubt how people behave according to what they are supposed to (and expected to) is genuinely how they are feeling inside, like respect. Respect to me has two meanings: the first is showing basic, universal dignity, which I’d like to see everyone doing towards everyone else, regardless of age. The second meaning is earned, toward someone who achieved something or who is virtuous. Again, it doesn’t have anything to do with age; I might admire someone of any age.

The social structure in Japan is much more hierarchical than in America. Age is one major factor; the elderly dominate in politics, business, organizations and the Academics. In most organizations, the “oldest” person is assumed to be the leader or the head of the group. The board members of business or NPO are pretty much all senior citizens. Some elderly people in Japan are even tyrannical; making all decisions without anyone’s inputs, ordering younger people around, yelling at subordinates. It’s pretty much impossible to talk back or express different opinions to the elderly in an organization if you are much younger. That’s not so much because you respect “older” people, but because it is expected and imposed by some social force.

One of the big appeals for me when I came to this country and stayed, was Americans in general were much more egalitarian. “Older” people do not talk down to younger people as if they are superior. It is rather refreshing for a Japanese person to use the same form of language when talking to people both younger and older. I like relating to everyone as equal, on the same level. I don’t believe in hierarchy in the fundamental sense, as we are all humans. My experience living in the U.S. has been mostly fairly positive. I feel “older” people generally treat me with respect and as equal. In fact, I have actually felt that sometimes younger people are more arrogant or somewhat impolite. It can be the Japanese in me feeling slight resentment when younger folks are not acknowledging that I have a few more years of life experience under my belt. It does feel nice when younger people show a bit of extra politeness towards those of us who are a few years senior. Still, just because I have lived on the planet a bit longer, I don’t feel demanding of more respect.

My observation is, Americans in general worship the youth, or being young—everyone wants to be youthful, to look young; getting old is a curse. We all seem to make a big deal out of a 20-30 year age difference, but in the big scheme of things, we homo sapience have lived on this planet for 200,000 years. The fact that we, young and “old,” are all living in this incredible transitional time and sharing the moments in history is much more significant; a few dozen years of age difference is so miniscule in 5.4 billion years of the planet’s history. Who knows someone 15 years of age might be 10,000 years old in terms of her soul. I never feel “old” and sometimes a much “younger” person seems more

mature. I don’t buy another cliche of “you get wiser as you age.” There are plenty of unwise “older” people running around, and I have met many wise people who are much younger.

I notice people here are much more segregated by age groups. I would love to see people of different generations mingle and relate to each other much more, and treat one another with basic respect and genuine kindness.


My favorite flower is the peony, but I also love tulips. The very first experience of gardening in my life was planting tulip bulbs in the flower pots when I was about six. I didn’t become an avid gardener or anything, but I still remember how exciting it was when the shoots came up a few months later.

I’m more conscious of loving flowers in recent years. Some years ago, very suddenly I started noticing and taking pictures of flowers when I was going for a walk or visiting friends. When people talk about sexism, it’s mostly about prejudice against women, but when it comes to flowers, it seems that people tend to assume flowers are for women. Many men are also into gardening; growing roses, dahlias and all kinds of flowers, but as for cut flowers, most people seem to assume they are for women. I wonder many men might feel it’s not very manly to admit they love flowers.

About an hour drive north from Seattle, the town of Mt Vernon is famous for tulips. This region grows more tulip bulbs than anywhere else in the U.S., and the Tulip Festival there in April draws hundreds of thousands of people every year. The first time I saw their spectacular carpet of colors in a huge landscape was when I was in college. I went on an overnight trip to Lopez Island with my Spanish classmates, and on the way back to Seattle we drove through the area when it just happened to be the peak blooming season of tulips. I didn’t know anything about the humongous tulip fields of Skagit County; it was totally unexpected and one of the most delightful surprises of my life.

Since then, I went back to Mt Vernon to take pictures of the tulips a bunch of times. A number of years ago I drove there by myself and spent more than three hours taking pictures of the display garden in one of the farms, and writing down the cultivars I really liked. After a careful scrutiny, I picked seven varieties out of dozens and dozens, and decided my favorite was a rather short, double cultivar called Angelique. It’s like a little peony and I loved the whitish pink color (which I don’t know if I should admit that is my favorite flower color, and risk sabotaging masculinity). A few years later, I was reading an article about the most popular tulip cultivar in Japan, and it was…. Angelique. Without having known much about tulips, spending hours taking notes and comparing, and after all my conclusion was exactly the same as them. I became an adult in the U.S. and in many ways I could be more American, but my aesthetics must be much more colored by Japanese sensibility.

I haven’t gardened all that much in my life, but did get into it for some years around the year 2000. I planted tulips in pots every year for several years. One year I planted 600 bulbs, including those tiny bulblets, each of which just shoot up a long leaf and bear no flower. I’ve heard it’s not easy to propagate tulips, by planting those little bulbs and harvesting bigger bulbs every year for 4, 5 years because of the virus. I tried to do that for Angelique, but the following year, most bulbs did seem to get some kind of a viral disease. After many years of not gardening, I started planting tulip bulbs again two years ago. The excitement of seeing the pointed green shoots coming out of the ground and observing the growth everyday is not all that different from when I was six. I would think having every kid experience planting and caring for flowers or vegetables has to be absolutely valuable and much more educational than studying for tests in the classroom.

One of my dreams is to have a small garden, grow lots of my favorite flowers and give them away—to both women and men.


Everyone knows that karaoke originated in Japan. When I’m talking to someone about karaoke and catch myself pronouncing kya-ree-Oh-kee, while of course I know the correct pronunciation (Kah-Rah-Oh-Ke), flat, no accent on any syllable), it’s rather amusing. In any case, living in the U.S., I find karaoke often ridiculed or avoided; the majority of Americans are not crazy about singing in front of people. When I ask my friends if they want to go out for karaoke, many say, “I can’t sing,” or “Nobody wants to hear me sing.” Here, singing is a talent; only good and gifted singers should sing in front of other people. On the other hand, most Americans normally don’t mind getting up and dancing, while generally Japanese people are rather shy about dancing in public.

Among regular Japanese folks, there are definitely talented singers who stand out. But, when I have a chance to go sing karaoke with Japanese friends or business associates, just about everyone sings, even rather introverted men and women still get up and sing. There is something about singing and Japanese culture: ubiquitous, egalitarian, and deeply ingrained. Many “Enkai” (Japanese style party with eating and drinking) often involve everyone singing together and clapping hands. Everyone who grew up in Japan must remember the school field trips, where on the bus with classmates, a microphone goes around the entire bus, and each student has to sing one by one. It doesn’t matter how shy, good or bad you are; nobody seems to care. It is the enjoyment of singing and hearing your friends sing. Karaoke must have come out of this cultural ‘soil.’

I am not one of those people who frequent karaoke places, but I do like to go and sing every now and then. I remember the first time I tried karaoke many years ago; I think it was someone’s home party. I thought I must be able to sing a Beatles song, since I had sung along hundreds of times. I believe I tried “Something,” and failed miserably. I realized I couldn’t just get up and sing; I needed to practice, a whole bunch of times. It’s in a way harder than playing the guitar and singing along, because the karaoke “empty orchestra” does not accommodate you. If I’m off a half beat, I’m screwed. Just about every Japanese person I did karaoke with has been pretty good; I bet they all had practiced for hours and hours.

I remember hearing, probably from one of the ethnomusicology classes in college, something like ninety percent of Japanese pre-modern composition was vocal music. Most musical instruments in Japanese classical music were used for accompaniment for voice and providing atmosphere, rather than independent instrumental pieces like European classical tradition. A musician from Zimbabwe told me, if you walk, you dance; if you talk, you sing. Maybe the notion of Arts as something specialized and separate from other parts of human activities, requiring talent and creativity, is rather unique to the West. In the rest of the world, music, visual arts, dance, poetry, literature, crafts, spiritual activities, and others are all blended together.

The most popular TV program when I was growing up in Japan was called “Kohaku Utagassen” (Red vs White Team Singing Competition). Up to 80 percent of the television sets were tuned in to this show for four and half hours every year on New Year’s Eve. Most popular pop singers in Japan were divided into two teams: White Team of male singers vs Red Team of female singers. At the end the judges, viewers and the audience decided which Team should win. Watching this singing TV program with your family, saying good-bye to the past year and bringing in the coming new year was a ritual for the huge majority of people. There is another longevity TV program in Japan called Nodojiman, singing contest. The amateur contestants sing one by one on stage in front of the audience. If you pass, you get 11 notes on the tubular bells; if you are ok, two notes; if bad, just one note. The champion of each week wins just a trophy, not a huge sum of money. Both TV programs are still broadcasted today (Kohaku since 1951, Nodojiman since 1946). These shows among others definitely have been fertilizing the soil of Japan’s singing culture.


If Americans are obsessed with money, Japanese national obsession in my view, hands down, is…food.

When I go visit my mom in Tokyo, we watch TV together, and it seems like over 80 percent of what’s on is about food—introducing great restaurants for ramen, curry, tonkatsu, what they eat in a small countryside village, a huge variety of nabe ryori (hot pot)…absolutely endless topics. Celebrities go to places, and inevitable “ahhh, oishii (delicious)!”

I have worked with dozens and dozens of groups from Japan when I worked as an interpreter over the years, and I have met only one or two people who didn’t care about food. Meals were always very important, one of the critical “tanoshimi” (something to enjoy) while they were on their business trip. Some even wrote to me, after they went back to Japan, how much they appreciated that I helped them navigate through the incomprehensible menus in English.

During the Washington State Centennial events in 1989, a state employee drove me and two other Japanese professionals from Seattle to Olympia; one was a business man, the other lady was another interpreter. Unlike Americans, Japanese people tend to be rather introverted with people they never met before. We weren’t talking much and it was a bit awkward. After 15 minutes or so, I said, “Which Chinese restaurants do you go to in Seattle?” One answered, “Shanghai Garden.” “I love that place, too.” Conversation suddenly blossomed and we talked and talked about good places for sushi, Vietnamese, Korean, etc. It became a fun ride and felt like we made new friends.

I used to go to Moses Lake, WA, every year with different groups. I told an American coordinator it’s important to have varieties for Japanese visitors in terms of meals. He said, “We are good, we have three different restaurants right next to the motel.” They were Denny’s, Sheri’s and another family restaurant. In my mind, and I bet 99 percent of Japanese people would think they are the same. What I meant when I said varieties was, Seafood, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, American, Mexican etc.

When I stayed in Corvallis, OR, with another group in one year, we had field trips three days in a row. Lunch was exactly the same every day—sandwich, apple, and cookie. Most Japanese people don’t mind sandwiches, but three days in a row… they were all feeling “unzari” (sick of it), even though they didn’t say anything. I would have suggested going to a Teriyaki place, stop at a grocery store, order pizza… just to mix up, give more varieties and have them taste different American food experiences.

I have so many food related memories over the years with guests from Japan, but what stands out most is a trip when a group of us stayed in Toronto, Canada. I suggested how about Thai food for dinner one night. Back then in the 90’s, ethnic food was not very common in Japan, even though today Thai restaurants are everywhere. Most of the members were rather skeptical and even scared of trying something new. I told them “Don’t worry, you will like them.” We ordered a bunch of dishes, shared with 7-8 people. It was the best Thai food I ever had, and I never forget the most blissful smile I ever witnessed when one member had his first bite and exclaimed, “Oishiiiii!”

Are you Japanese?

It seems to most people that this is such an innocent question, but I always feel ambivalent when someone I just met asks, “Are you Japanese?” “Are you Korean?” or “Are you Chinese?” I’m not saying that they are rude or there is something inherently wrong about these questions. More than 90 percent of people would probably just answer yes or no. I often wonder, if these ethnicity questions are mostly asked to Asians. Do Caucasians ask each other, “Are you Italian?” “Are you German?” “Are you Danish?” right off the bat before getting to know each other, when someone is obviously not a visitor from another country.

A majority of Asians probably identify themselves as Chinese, Korean, Filipino, etc. by their ethnic background, so I don’t really blame people for asking this question. I have often met people who seem to think they can tell if someone is Japanese, Chinese or Korean. But the truth is, the origin of Japanese people in the ancient time is very complex. 2000 years ago, the Far East had hundreds of “nations” and there were quite a few migrations and intermingling over hundreds of years before Japan was established as a separate country.

I get a little bit annoyed about this question because it is a question of identity. If people ask me where I was born or where I grew up, I don’t mind so much. The fact is, I personally don’t identify myself with my nationality nor ethnicity. I often answer the question with “I’m Hungarian,” or “I’m Celtic,” to be funny or being a smart ass. But, regarding being Celtic, I’m actually not completely joking. How deeply I am moved by Celtic music and the strong connections I feel about many things British in somewhat mysterious ways, I often wonder if my soul might be more closely related to the Ancient Celts…who knows.

When I meet people for the first time, I would prefer questions like “What kind of books do you read?” “What is your favorite flavor of ice cream?” or the best yet, “What is your favorite rock group of all time?” Questions that relate to music taste would say much more about me than my ethnic background. I also identify myself with my generation more (between Boomers and Gen X) than my birth place. I feel someone is my people when I meet folks who are about my age, who listened to the same kinds of music when going through high school and college years.

I did grow up in Tokyo, my parents are Japanese, and my native language is Japanese. Since I spent my teenage years in Tokyo, basic cultural influences like food, less individualism, aesthetics and so on are undeniably Japanese. But does Japan totally define me? I have lived in the US much longer now; then does that mean I became an American? Am I Japanese? Am I American? To me, this question is like asking water (H2O): Are you Hydrogen (H) or Oxygen (O)? Water is neither, but includes both. I can’t say I am Japanese or American, but both are in me.