How a Trip to the Pool is a Microcosm of Life in Japan for a Gaijin
by Gregory D. Durgin, 1 May 2001
When I arrived in Japan, one of the first things I wanted to find was a good pool for swimming laps. Swimming laps is one of the only forms of exercise I get as an engineer, so I enjoy any opportunity to blow off some steam (and some pounds) in a pool. It helps to fight off the biyo biyo, which roughly translates into English as jiggling belly lard.
I want to relate a swimming story from my first week in Osaka. The reason: the story embodies a key difference in culture between North America and Japan. These differences will clash in any setting … especially in business and engineering. So there is an important lesson to be learned.
I found the Toyonaka municipal swimming pool from a map I received at city hall. So early on a Wednesday morning I got on my bicycle and headed for the pool. I found it with little difficulty and arrived at about 8:45 a.m.
According to the sign on the front of the building, the pool did not open until 9:00 a.m., so I had about 15 minutes to kill. There were a bunch of old Japanese men sitting in the lobby of the pool, waiting for the facility to open, too. I sat down with them (they were a friendly bunch). I thought maybe it would be nice if the staff would let us into the changing room. Surely it would take a few minutes to get ready for the pool, so there’s no harm in entering early. But that is not the Japanese way.
The pool opened and everyone lined up to go in. When it was my turn to pay the 600 yen, the lady at the counter smiled at me and pointed to a machine in the corner of the room. “Chicketto,” she said. Ah, yes … I remembered the drill. In Japan, many facilities, stores, and cafeterias employ an electronic cashier machine. You buy the ticket and hand the ticket to the lady at the front desk. Surely the lady could have counted the 600 yen herself, eliminating the expensive cashier machine. But that is not the Japanese way.
I went to walk into the locker room and was instantly admonished by the terrified lady at the front desk. “Kutsu,” she said with a nervous smile. Ah, yes … I remembered the drill. Take off your shoes before entering a home or other clean area. Surely there was no harm in leaving my shoes on in this place: it is a public facility with tile floors. But that is still not the Japanese way.
So I changed, put my stuff in a locker, rinsed off, and entered the swimming area. I was about to dive into a lane when a smiling Japanese woman came up to me and started point to my watch frantically. “Rokkah,” she said, smiling. Ah, yes … she wanted me to put my watch in the locker (rokkah). Of course, it was a water-proof watch that I had worn swimming hundreds of times before, so there was no harm leaving it on. But that is not the Japanese way.
The lady then pointed to my small personal bag that I had laid on the edge of the pool. Again smiling, she repeated, “Rokkah.” Apparently that had to go inside the locker, too. The lady then pointed to my flip-flops. Apparently that had to go inside the locker, too. It was becoming one really crowded locker. At least she let me leave my tiny drying towel by the side of the pool. It was a moral victory.
When I came back out of the changing room, I jumped into a lane that, by now, had someone else swimming in it as well. The man started swimming on the right side of the lane, so I started swimming on the left side of the lane. Twenty meters later, all hell broke loose.
Whistles started blowing, arms started flailing, and Japanese women started smiling. Ah, yes … they swim circular laps in a shared pool lane instead of splitting the lane like I was doing. I always liked splitting lanes because you don’t have to worry about passing – you can go at your own speed. But that is not the Japanese way.
If I had less experience in Japan, I would have gotten really down on myself that day. There are times when a gaijin (foreigner) feels that he can do no right in this culture. But the important thing to do is just laugh off the differences. Remember, it’s the Japanese way. Do not deviate from it. It’s not that important. Just accept it. And smile back.