Chasing a dream to Japan

Kunmato, Japan. Photo: Kumamoto City Tourism

Dartmouth’s James Spurr was 10 when Japan first caught his interest.

His mother had gone to visit her brother, who lived in the country for many years. When she returned after two weeks, her photos fascinated Spurr. The country return to the top of his mind in his third year of linguistics and Asian studies at Saint Mary’s University.

“One of my professor that year was a Russian man who had spent more than 20 years in Japan,” he recalls. “It wasn’t long after he really got to know me that he began to encourage me to go there to become more fluent in its language.”

After graduating from SMU, he took advantage of a program that assists its students who want to visit another country to study its language, heading to a college in Kumamoto, a city on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu.

Before beginning his classes, he took the opportunity to roam around much of the country, recalling a visit to Nagasaki as a deeply moving experience. There, he heard of a survivor’s account of the 1945 atomic bombing of the city by American forces, hastening the conclusion of the Second World War.

James Spurr

During his year in Kumamoto, he lived in a dormitory with students from China, Vietnam, and South Korea. Among his challenges was spending two hours a week at a private school where he taught English to exuberant kindergarten students.

He encountered countless cultural differences living in Japan, offering this list of his most memorable examples.

  • Japanese toilets are divine. You have to experience them to believe it. The Japanese toilet will play music to you, warm your backside, and then shower you in the softest of water at just the right temperature.
  • In most countries, being caught napping on the job is not a good look. In Japan, however, it’s acceptable because it’s a sign of working hard, not indolence. 
  • Many behaviours that are common in North America are rude in Japan, including eating or drinking while walking, pointing at people or things, and blowing your nose in public.
  • Public displays of affection will draw disapproving looks, especially from older Japanese people.
  • When referring to themselves, people will use their forefinger to touch their nose instead of pointing at themselves.
  • Tattoos are widely disliked and associated with criminality.
  • Eating horse meat is common.
  • In a noodle shop, everyone around you will be slurping as they eat; it’s considered evidence of enjoying the meal.

Spurr hopes to start his next stay in Japan in March, and promises to provide more updates to Halifax Magazine.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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