My first trip to Japan was as a student studying abroad. Upon arriving, I was instantly impressed by the kindness and hospitality of the people. At the train station, strangers went out of their way to help me carry my three large, 50-pound suitcases down the stairs. I had no idea there wouldn’t be elevators or even escalators.
My host family was amazing. They took me on excursions to see the city, view Mount Fuji, go shopping, and to experience local cuisine. Each night, the host-mother put a lot of care into preparing special dishes that she thought would suit my tastes. And at the end of the stay, they gave me elaborate gifts.
In another example, one of my Japanese lecturers at Clemson University suggested I call her friend when I visited Tokyo (this is before email). The day I called, my lecturer’s friend was not at home, but her daughter Eri answered the phone. Eri invited me to their home, served me tea, and then took me to dinner and a movie. She dropped everything she was doing and spent the whole day with me. On top of that, she would not let me pay for anything.
These experiences are not unusual. There have been many more occasions where I, and others, have experienced this same level of hospitality.
Many young Japanese people idolize American culture. They watch Hollywood movies, listen to American music, study English, and dream about studying abroad. But unless they have gone abroad, they most likely have never had any real interaction with an American, or any foreigner.
This is especially true of older people and people living outside major cities. For example, on a road trip through the countryside, I was once stopped by a couple at a gas station and asked to take a picture with their baby.
Japan is still a very homogenous country without a lot of foreign interaction. Even though there are more and more foreigners going to Japan to teach English and foreign tourism is increasing, many still are uncomfortable with foreign interaction.
Some view foreigners with suspicion and are nervous about speaking English. This can appear rude or racist to foreign visitors, but in these cases it is best to smile, have a positive attitude, and remember that you are a representative for your country.
Fortunately, many others are excited about foreigners visiting their country and happy to put their rusty English skills to good use. They want the visitors to have a good time and treat them like royalty. They are proactive when foreigners need help and are likely the people you will encounter when visiting Japan, such as the experiences when I first arrived.