I was honoured to receive an invitation to share my experiences for the Life Lessons series, a project hosted by Abubakar Jamil in collaboration with Farnoosh Brock. This post will combine travel and self improvement, centered around my personal experiences from living in Japan. Here we go.
7 appears to be a universally lucky or holy number. Also in Japan. The Japanese celebrate the seventh day after a baby’s birth, and mourn the seventh day and seventh week following a death.
All over Japan you can see pictures and sculptures of the Seven Gods of Luck: the Shichi-fuki-jin. It is part of the Japanese folkore. During the first seven days of the year, whole families will visit temples and shrines to pay their respects to the shichi-fuku-jin. Many of these places are dedicated to just one of the gods, so people often make a tour of seven shrines to see them all, to ensure they benefit from all types of luck.
Complex? Or simple?
Is there something we can learn from traditions like this?
I lived in Japan for 3 months back in 1996. Although only 3 months, memories are very much alive and kicking today. I was very curious to learn about this country and its people. Did I become a different person after living in Japan? The answer is definitely yes. Let me share 7 life lessons learned from my stay in Japan. Lessons I still practice every day.
- Open up to become open-minded
- There’s more beneath the surface
- Being over-organized
- Blend of simplicity and complexity
Artificial maybe, but the politeness towards customers in Japan is a great lesson to be learned. Upon entering a store you are always (I mean always) greeted politely. In a big mall there will probably be girls at the entrance bowing to you, thanking you for choosing their store and spending your valuable time here. “Irashaimase” they say. Welcome.
It struck me how insignificant I was, as a customer, upon returning to Europe. When I first entered a store back home, no one greeted me. I had to wait for someone to notice me. “Hello! I’m here, a customer!”
This politeness is something you see everywhere in Japan. You apologise to people, you recognise if people need help. Lesson learned.
Respect for elderly people, respect for your teacher (in Japanese: Sensei), respect for your parents, it’s all part of the Japanese way of life.
At my own high school I can remember we called our teachers by their first name and we tend to make fun of them. Then I went to university in the Netherlands to study Japanese (1994 to 1996).
My teacher was Japanese and I still call here Sensei, Inoue-sensei. I don’t even call her Inoue-san (the Japanese equivalent for Mr. or Mrs.), but I call her “Teacher”. In Japan you respect your teachers for the rest of your life. Inoue-sensei will always be Inoue-sensei, my teacher.
Respect for other people, especially people that helped you or raised you. Lesson learned.
Wow, striking to see how punctual the trains are in Japan. The Shinkansen (the high-speed bullet train) rides hundreds of miles without losing no more than 2 seconds on its time schedule.
Being punctual equals respect. If you show up on time for your appointment, you show respect to the person you visit. The train leaving on time is showing respect to its travelers.
I am never late for an appointment now. Lesson learned.
4. Open up to become open-minded
Japan has been a closed country. In the 16th century it allowed foreigners to enter the country for the first time, but only by having them stay on an artificial island near Nagasaki. The island of around 16,000sqm was called Deshima and hosted only Dutch people. The Dutch came to Japan after the Portuguese, but Deshima was the first real encounter of Japanese people with foreigners. The country started to open up.
Miniature version of the former Deshima island
However, 400 years later Japan is still called a closed country. Because the economy is not growing and population is aging, there is again a call to open-up the country. Not only on an economic level but also the people need to become more interested in the rest of the world. A good example is a kind of summon to people to improve their command of English and to companies to increase the number of foreign board members.
You can grow as a person by showing interest in other cultures, other people. Don’t shut yourself off from outside influences, but let them enrich you. Lesson learned.
5. There is more beneath the surface
I learned in Japan that there is always more than meets the eye. There is a whole new world behind the first glance facade of society. It takes a book to explain it and a great read is “Pictures from the Water Trade” by John David Morley.
If you meet Japanese people, they are quite reserved. Japanese people are not that extrovert as most Westerners are. But that does not mean these people are not interesting! They have great stories to tell, they have awesome knowledge to share, the only thing is they are a bit more difficult to approach.
In your daily life, how many times do you judge someone only upon your first encounter? Show respect by showing interest in someone. Share your knowledge and you will get something in return. Lesson learned.
6. Being over-organized
An over-organized public life: good or bad? Well, there is a reverse to every medal. From my time in Japan I learned that strict organization prevents chaos, but over-organizing is the instigator of dullness.
I visited this ancient Japanese castle and wanted to explore it randomly. Just strolling across the grounds, trying to really discover something new. But the Japanese did not allow me to. There was a clearly signed route where deviation was not allowed! There was only one way to view the castle. I came across this over-organization at different occasions in Japan.
In my daily life I now respond to this experience by just letting things go sometimes. Enjoy how a day unfolds, enjoy the air you breathe. Let yourself be surprised by whatever comes your way (also a very good travel tip by the way). Lesson learned.
7. Blend of simplicity and complexity
Japan is strange.
Japan is a country full of complexity where people and their behavior are not always understood.
In contrast, Japanese design seems to be impregnated with simplicity. The beauty of minimalisation is a strength of Japan.
Japan is an example of a country where simplicity and complexity blend. Must blend, actually. In Japan, complexity needs simplicity. Japanese people living the complex social life need a simple way to escape that (eg. by engaging in karaoke or manga). This is what makes the country fascinating.
Switching between simplicity and complexity helps you to cope with daily challenges. After a busy day at work I love to watch cartoons with my kids. Our own minimalistic interior at home is a haven of peace in a busy world. Lesson learned.
Japan is awesome, I fell in love with the country before I even went for my first visit. This post described life lessons my stay in Japan taught me during 3 consecutive travels. What lessons did you take back home from your travels? I would love to hear them!
Are you traveling to Japan for the first time? Check this great overview with 15 useful tips by fellow travel blogger Kris and Sylvia.
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