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Pro tips on how to act like a native Japanese

by Amy Chavez

This column is for Kim Bostwick, who is moving to Japan this week. I’ve made a list of pertinent things to know for her smooth transition into Japanese culture. Do these things, and people will mistake you for a native Japanese:

1. The first Japanese word you should learn is not “konnichiwa” or “ohayo gozaimasu.” It’s “shinhatsubai!” which means “new product!” Notice the word is always spelled with an exclamation point, even in kanji. “New product!” refers to a new item that has just arrived on the shelves in any given shop, restaurant, cafe, convenience store, laundromat, pet store or fertilizer shop. Ah, the lure of the latest new product! Dream about it, pine for it, and become obsessed with it to the point that you must have it as soon as possible. Travel long distances to get it, rearrange your whole day around it, even stand in line for it. If not, you will lie awake at night regretting that you didn’t get in on the latest thing. And you wouldn’t want that now, would you?

Your aim is to be the first person among your friends or colleagues to try the new cherry blossom-flavored potato chips, buy the newest computer gadget or to eat at that new restaurant in town.

2. Embrace the new pronunciation of your name. Kim becomes Kimu in Japanese, so while people may mistake you for a Korean, you’re luckier than those who have one or more “r”s or “l”s in their names — sounds the Japanese find difficult to say. Imagine the problems Rumpelestiltskin would have if he came to Japan. On the other hand, if you’d rather go by Kimberly, the Japanese pronunciation is Keembaaree. So you should introduce yourself as Keembaaree rather than Kimberly, as Japanese people will find it much easier to use the Japanese pronunciation.

This is a great country for those who get all upset when people mispronounce or misspell their names back home. Consider it rehab.

3. Try the flavors — all of them. Let’s get this straight — you are never, and I mean never, too good for a flavor, even if it is red azuki bean-flavored ice cream, a matcha latte or milk-flavored candy. Why deprive yourself of things like chicken wing ice cream? How will you know if you like horse-flavored ice cream if you’ve never tried it? Yay or neigh?

4. Get the post-office gifts. This year, the post office seems to be focusing on gifts that are actually useful rather than those that are just cute. No, they’re not giving out air conditioners, but they are giving out coin banks, tenugui (hand towels) and coasters. Hey, you are a customer — you need gifts.

5. Choose your bank wisely. Choose your bank according to the character goods they provide you with when you open a bank account. Wallace and Grommit, Snoopy, Barbapapa, you name it, you can have their cartoon celebrity grace your ATM card, your bank book, and all the little bankie paraphernalia they give out emblazoned with your favorite character. C’mon, you know you’ve always wanted a Snoopy cash card. The banks are not dumb. Besides, you are a customer — you need gifts.

6. Choose cute colors. There are many colors in Japan that we don’t have in the West, such as kawaii pink, kawaii blue or kawaii white. Kawaii red is used for things like drawings of strawberries, smiling cheeks and Hello Kitty’s hair ribbon. Navy blue, gray and dark green are not cute colors. Pastels are cute. Color with fur is cute. Any color that has sparklies in it is super cute. You wouldn’t, for example, buy a pair of toilet slippers with boring navy blue birds on them. Go for the pair with pink gorillas on them or pastel-colored cupcakes.

7. Learn to ride the trains properly. Westerners might type messages on their mobile phones or read a book while on the train, but there is so much more you can do! Sleeping, for one. After you learn how to sleep on the train, you’ll realize how much time can be saved at home in your bed. You’ll learn to sleep while sitting with your ears open so you’ll know when to get off at your stop. This position is also a great guise for meditation. Breathe deeply, recite mantras in your head and arrive at your destination enlightened.

8. Support your community. Every area of Japan is famous for some type of food, fruit or sweet. The prefecture where I live, Okayama, is famous for peaches and the folktale of the Peach Boy. The town I live in, on the other hand, is famous for the helmet crab, a living fossil. The island I live on is famous for something else — the seaweed it makes. Find out what are the local products that your prefecture and town are famous for and buy the resulting products for guests and others from out of town. You’ll be seen as a supportive member of the community while helping the local economy.

With these things mastered, you’ll be, as the Japanese say, “more Japanese than the Japanese.” Good luck Keembaaree!

Follow Amy Chavez on Twitter @JapanLite.