Of all the places in the world that I’ve been to so far, none have made me feel as uncomfortable as Japan.
This can be mostly attributed to the language barrier. Japan, despite being a huge tourist destination, has a unique combination amongst Asian countries of having a generally introverted populace1 with scarce English skills, and looking back on it now, it was both of these factors that made me feel so uncomfortable while I was there.
Of the half-dozen Asian countries I’ve been to, I’ve been fine being an Asian tourist that blends into the locals, with passable Chinese language skills. Even if I couldn’t understand every thing that was being said, I could at least understand some things. Not having that ability with Japanese, in Japan, made me extremely uncomfortable.
It made me realise how I’ve taken my meagre language skills for granted. I’m barely conversational in Mandarin, but even that has always felt like enough, for the places that I’ve been to.
But in Japan, having people speak Japanese to me and not understanding a word of it, is uncomfortable as hell.
It made me uncomfortable speaking English back to people who spoke Japanese, like I was operating under the assumption that they understood and spoke English. When they didn’t, it made me uncomfortable pointing at things on menus to communicate what I wanted, like I was some kind of mute toddler. It made me uncomfortable not knowing if the handful of Japanese phrases I learned were being pronounced correctly, or whether they understood what I was saying when I said them. It made me uncomfortable speaking Japanese in the first place, because then they might assume I knew Japanese, and keep speaking Japanese to me. It made me uncomfortable playing the part of the ignorant foreigner, all while some Japanese assumed I was also from Japan and could speak Japanese.
For one of the few times in my life, I was truly outside of my comfort zone. And it was great!
Being outside my comfort zone meant that I was finally able to experience a culture and language other than my own Chinese background. I’ve travelled enough with my parents and relatives to enough countries to know that I wasn’t getting the full experience when overseas, but doing things on your own is a different thing entirely. Despite how uncomfortable I was conversing with locals, I was able to navigate around Japan perfectly fine on my own, with a little help from Google Maps and the English signage at train stations. I did and saw about 85% of the things I had put on my list to do and see, with a few things left over in case I ever decide to go back.