How much do we know about Europe? And how much do we know about Europe in the eyes of a Japanese? The Euroculturer invited Natsumi Kagao (Euroculture 2011/13) from Japan to share her experience in Europe.
1) Hello, Natsumi. Could you introduce yourself and tell us how long you have been in Europe, and why you decided to come here?
My name is Natsumi Kagao and I am from Japan. I have been interested in Europe for a long time, and I am especially fascinated by European history and culture, so I applied for the MA Euroculture programme – and that’s why I am here in Europe now. I have been to Europe twice, once in 2008 and once in 2009, but both were just for short trips (around 3 weeks). Now I’m staying in Europe for 17 months, having started Euroculture in 2011, living in Poland and Sweden.
2) Before you came to Europe, what were your expectations? And how were these expectations formed (school education, media, friends, European literature, films, books, food, etc.)?
I had an image of Europe that everything is beautiful and sophisticated, especially in Western and Northern Europe.
My image of Southern Europe was of a typical resort and tourist place, which is maybe why I didn’t have much interest in it. These images were mainly created through the media and books.
Regarding Eastern Europe, I have read books and watched films about this region (particularly about Poland) since I was 14. Through these books and films, I had an impression of something with a historical and cultural cloud. Therefore it attracted me as something important and interesting to learn about. Thus, I expected that I could see and experience the diversity of Europe if I spent my life in different regions of Europe.
Also, I expected that Western and Northern Europe were modern, contemporary and convenient. Simplicity and good design were also something that I expected to see in Europe. In Japanese cities, it’s nearly impossible to see any unity on buildings. European cities and designs are very united and simple.
3) Did these expectations of Europe serve you well? Or did you experience something quite different from your expectations?
Mostly yes. Certainly the scenery and atmosphere are quite different in each country and region. Europe makes strong efforts for tradition and innovation to coexist, perhaps more than I expected. However, even though there are certain national and regional differences, the people seem to share a certain ‘Europeaness’. They are surely Europeans who are dissimilar from East-Asians on some points. Also, I had an impression that Europeans don’t give so much attention to convenience. The perception of service also seems to be different from Japan, which I still struggle with in Europe.
4) What do you think are the dominant characteristics of European people? And was it easy for you to get used to them?
Although it depends on the European, where they come from and what kind of background they have, I understand European characteristics with three key terms: easy-going, individualism and rough and broad (they don’t care about the small stuff so much).
Europeans are relatively open-minded toward East-Asians and don’t show any hesitation to talk with us. Poles (especially older Poles) were very friendly and curious to speak to me in Polish and with body language, even though obviously they knew that I didn’t speak Polish very well. I think that is because we are not categorised as a problem group in Europe: we rarely commit crimes. At least they are not afraid of seeing East-Asians, but at the same time I’ve seen some Europeans behave as if they are superior to Asians.
Europeans like to show their own opinions. In Japan, being opinionated is regarded as ‘something inappropriate’ because it prevents harmony, and also people are afraid of making mistakes, i.e. saying the wrong answer in public, so they would hide what’s in their minds: In Europe, people tend to respect various opinions and accept all of them as they are.
Also I think traditional things such as heritage and history are held in high esteem by Europeans. Furthermore, this perception is even reflected in people’s aging. They seem not to hesitate or deny aging so much because they accept it or try to accept aging positively, at least more so than the Japanese do. This way of thinking fascinates me.
However, to my eyes, Europeans can be somewhat rude in public. Some people speak in very loud voices, eat in libraries, don’t queue, or sometimes even cut in line. I think it’s because of individualism: they care about themselves primarily and doing something at their own pace.
5) Do you think European people are familiar with Japanese culture? And through which route, do you think, were such expectations formed?
I think they know some basic information, such as about Tokyo and Kyoto, sushi and Japanese food, kimono, samurai, anime and some crazy ultramodern stuff, etc. Especially Japanese food and green tea are quite popular among Europeans, I think. However, I wouldn’t say this means they are familiar with Japanese culture. These are just superficial things, and their popularity does not necessarily mean that people are familiar with them. One needs to know about the history and reason and so on in order to become familiar with something.
6) Did you feel more Asian in Europe than you did in Japan?
Yes, surely yes. I began to see things more in comparison with those in Japan. I think it’s because one feels more necessity to keep one’s own identity, especially when a person exists as a minority in a society. Otherwise it’s easy to lose oneself. There are certain times that I strongly feel that I am not a European, but a Japanese or an East-Asian.
7) What was the most difficult part about living in Europe?
Inconvenience. For example, shops close very early on weekends, even if they are big department stores. It’s strange that I complain because normally I do not like to go shopping so in a way it does not matter to me. But I remember being shocked when I first found out that the information centre in Stockholm closes at 4pm. Also, I couldn’t believe having to pay to use toilets. Moreover, these toilets which are supposed to be cleaned with that unreasonable money are actually not so clean, especially compared to normal and public toilets in Japan.
Noisiness in a place where you are supposed to be quiet is also annoying.
8) Did you make any good European friends who you could really talk to?
Yes, I made some good friends.
9) What do you think would be the most difficult part for your European friends if they lived in Japan?
They would have considerable physical difficulty in Japan with so many people in one place, I think. They could also experience cultural and conventional difficulty, as they are demanded ‘not to stand out (so much)’. Also, it might be hard to see real intention of the Japanese in conversations or actions. The Japanese language would also be a hurdle to live in Japan.
10) What’s your best experience with European culture?
This is not such an easy question because I have lots of nice memories with European culture. Plus, it’s difficult to define what European culture is! Regarding the physical aspect, I liked walking in the forest or in nature with almost no one else and no buildings there. It always fascinates me to walk in the towns which are very united with old buildings and new shops integrated into the traditional design.
As for the conventional aspects, I feel kind of relieved because as long as I live in Europe, I don’t need to care about whether I should lose more weight or how skinny I should be. Also, I am very happy that I don’t need to be very girl-y. Since I’m not such a girl-y person, I am not regarded or treated as a girl or woman by Japanese guys. To show one’s true colour during ordinary conversations or discussions is much easier in Europe – this is one of the good experiences in Europe.
11) Describe in one sentence: European culture is like…. because….
(e.g. European culture is like…chocolate because…it is addictive)
As you see, Europe has a lot of cultures which have been created through nations, regions, languages, genders, generations, religions, histories, climates and so on. Thus, every European culture is unique and valuable.
I would say European culture is like ‘a bundle of keys’. There are a lot of keys in the bundle, and each key can open a specific door to these European cultures. Each key has a different shape, age, colour: just like European culture. However, they are all connected and tied up in one bundle which is kind of a common foundation of European culture.
Thank you so much for your answers! We wish you all the best with everything you do! 🙂