The McDonalds Continuum of Culture Shock

When I first went to Kyoto there were very few Western restaurants. There was a makudonarudo and a Shakey’s Pizza Restaurant downtown. This was in 1976. There were other restaurants that appeared to be Western such as the Lipton Restaurant. We presumed it was British. We also found that the fancy department stores sold exotic chocolates imported from Europe and the United States. Imagine seeing a forlorn Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bar next to swanky Swiss and Belgian chocolate with a similar price tag!

The very first McDonalds to come to Japan in 1971. Located in the glamorous Ginza district of Tokyo. And still there!

I was not a kankōkyaku to Kyoto and was now here for the duration. After graduating from college with a major in Japanese Language and Literature I was back for a second shot at Japan.

There were not that many gaikokujin living in Kyoto at that time. After living there for six months, I felt like I’d probably seen them all and talked to the ones I wanted to meet. Kyoto had plenty of kankōkyaku, but they weren’t any of my concern. There was a certain level of snobbery among the foreigners who lived there, and your status was directly linked to your time in Japan, and level of language ability. If you were really cool, you strode around wearing a yukata like Clifton Karhu, a Minnesota artist who later became quite famous. Or you managed a beat coffee house like the poet Cid Corman. If you were a woman, maybe you dared to become a bar hostess instead of teaching English conversation like 95% of all foreigners. Back then almost all Western foreigners taught English, even if they came from Germany or France.

We had no virtually no connection at all with Asian foreigners. When we did meet one, we were excited. They seemed exotic and could “pass” unlike us.

The one thing that you did not do if you were living in Kyoto was to eat at McDonalds. It came up often in conversation, and you wanted to be that person who had not gone even once. Or if you did go, you wanted it to be only in an emergency, or once or twice a year. (It is hard to imagine what the emergency would be since it was located downtown within stone’s throw of any number of genuine Japanese eateries.) You wanted to be the person who didn’t know that to order French fries you had to ask for poteto.” And you wouldn’t know that kechappu wasn’t available unless you specifically asked for it, and then they’d squirt some into a tiny paper cup for you in the back.

I could be very smug here. I’d worked at a McDonalds back in the United States when I was in high school. I’d had my fill and didn’t feel a strong need to take a trip back down that particular memory lane. Though my first encounter with washoku had not gone smoothly, I now knew what I liked to eat and where to get it.

Osho, the cheap Chinese joint that students all loved.

Here is how I rated the cultural adjustment of an American in Japan based on his relationship with McDonalds. Let’s call him Edgar.

  1. Passes by makudonarudo with slight longing in eyes, but nobly resists.
  2. Brags about how much he likes Japanese food and eats sushi every night for dinner.
  3. Starts wearing a yukata to work, and eats nattō. Disdains pasta.
  4. Refuses to talk to any other foreigners. Insists on speaking Japanese with them when forced to converse.
  5. Realizes MinMin, and Osho are really Chinese food joints (cheap greasy spoons with gyoza and fried rice).
  6. His Japanese gets good enough to read menus instead of relying on plastic food models in front of restaurants.
  7. Craves French fries and hates himself for it.
  8. Craves French fries and starts counting how long it has been since he’s had a hamburger.
  9. Realizes he’s being ridiculous and that where one eats is no genuine reflection of…. Well, anything.
  10. Takes off his yukata, walks into McDonalds and unselfconsciously orders a burger and fries. And a banana milkshake. (After all, it IS Japan.)

Omedetō gozaimasu, Edgar! You have now officially adjusted to Japan and can drop all the pretension. Sad to say, this process usually took a long time for Americans, I’m afraid. We have such ridiculous pretensions….

  • makudonarudo マクドナルド McDonalds. It’s a mouthful to say. I think you can get away with just saying makku if you are in context.
  • kankōkyaku – 観光客 tourists
  • gaikokujin – 外国人 foreigners. This is the polite form. In Japan, the shorter the phrase gets the ore casual or even rude it is. Because of that, it isn’t exactly polite when this gets shortened to gaijin. But it very often is shortened to the dismay of some.
  • yukata – 浴衣 summer kimono. These are generally made of cotton. In my mind, if it is not cotton, it is not genuine, i.e. please do not wear any made from rayon or polyester. Cringeworthy!
  • poteto – ポテト You might think this is how you say potato, but you’d be wrong. This means French Fries. Potato has its own word.
  • kechappu – ケチャップ catsup
  • nattō – 納豆 fermented soybeans. I have never even wanted to try nattō and there is a fierce battle between the nattō camp and the not nattō camp. I’m sure they are quite healthy, but yuck. Generally, people in Kyoto do not eat it. I rest my case.
  • MinMin – 珉珉 a cheap Chinese joint. A real greasy spoon that women used to not want to enter. But it was the saving grace for starving students.
  • Osho – 王将 Another cheap Chinese joint that is famous for gyōza. If you’re young and your stomach can stand it, it’s great food!
  • gyōza – 餃子 Fried dumplings.You should know this since they are pretty mainstream outside Japan now.
  • Omedetō gozaimasu – おめでとうございます Congratulations!

Didn’t your mother ever teach you to do laundry?

That was the question my homestay mother would ask each time I needed to do laundry. And I was at a loss to explain to her how different her sentakki was from what I used in the United States.

Doing laundry in that house was a big production from my point of view. You had to take a hose from the sink, connect it to the sentakki and fill the machine with mizu from that sink faucet. I was not allowed to touch the yuwakashiki at the sink, so I washed my clothes in cold water. My homestay mother had attempted to teach me how to turn on this tank-less gas water heater safely, but it had too many steps and directions for me, and we’d both given up. The washing machine looked nothing like machines in the United States, and it had two different compartments.

The smaller compartment was the spinner.

You’d load your laundry into one barrel along with the senzai to agitate it. You’d set a timer for how ever long you wanted to wash it. When it was done, you’d move the soapy wet clothing into the smaller barrel next to it which was the spinner. After placing what looked like a strainer on top of it, you’d spin it for about three minutes, and then move it back into the wash barrel to rinse it. Then after that was done, you’d give it another good spin. It worked quite well. When one-barrel washing machines first came out, many housewives were not impressed and said the two-barrel ones worked better. And, I agree! There were no kansōki in Japan back then, and even now many people hang their laundry outside to dry. So after washing my clothes, I’d take them outside and hop off the beranda to the very small yard to our multi-tiered clothes line.

It was not a line, but rather bamboo poles. Trucks would go around the neighborhood selling laundry poles, which were then mostly made of aluminum rather than bamboo. You’d use a fork like tool to lift them down from the tiers. The highest tier was about fifteen feet from the ground, and thus in view of the neighbors. You’d load up the pole and then hoist it back up. My homestay mother was shocked one day when I thoughtlessly hung my shitagi on the highest tier for all the neighbors to see. She gave a stock comment that I heard from her quite often.

My homestay family had a three-tiered bamboo pole set-up just like this one.

“Didn’t your mother ever teach you to [hang laundry properly?”]

This family was slated to spend a year at Amherst College in the future, and I could not wait for her to find out why I didn’t know some of the things that she took for granted that any capable young woman would know. We also struggled with language since she spoke very little Eigo and my Nihongo wasn’t yet up to speed. I was never able to explain myself to her.

One day she said to me, “You’re Jewish. Explain the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to me.” She’d get me every time. I couldn’t even explain that one in English, let alone Japanese. Again, I felt like a dummy.

At the end of our first semester in Japan we had the option of leaving our homestay families and finding different living situations. It was no coincidence that all the young women chose to move out, and all the men were happy to stay. Being men, their homestay mothers did their sentaku for them and they weren’t asked to do any kaji. This was the difference between being a son and a daughter at that time in Japan. And maybe, still.

  • sentakki – 洗濯機 washing machine
  • mizu – 水 water. A general word for water, but hot water has its own word – oyu お湯
  • yuwakashiki – 湯沸器 tankless hot water heater
  • senzai – 洗剤 laundry detergent
  • kansōki – 乾燥機 clothes dryer. In all my years in Japan I never had one. Other than the rainy season, that worked fine for me. During the rainy season I’d hang the wash inside…sometimes for days.
  • beranda – ベランダ veranda
  • shitagi – 下着 underwear
  • Eigo – 英語 English language
  • Nihongo – 日本語 Japanese language
  • sentaku 洗濯 laundry
  • kaji – 家事 household tasks

Thank you for the Bath

After my study abroad group arrived in Japan in August 1976, we spent a few days in a youth hostel in northern Kyoto for some orientation. After all, sending us in blindly to live with our Japanese host families could be a disaster… right? So, first things first, we had lessons on bowing. It’s not that bowing itself is difficult, but the placement of the hands is important as is the degree of the bow. And it is different for women and men. But after you’ve lived in Japan for a few weeks, ojigi comes naturally whenever you say arigatō or apologize for something. And Japanese say thank you a lot.

The youth hostel that was our home for a week or so.

For example, in my homestay family, I would say thank you for the bath each night. It might sound strange, but heating and preparing the ofuro in 1976 was a certain amount of work and cost. So it was proper etiquette to thank the family. My host family lived in a very traditional small wooden house. Strangely enough, both the toilet and ofuro were located outside of the main house. I suppose they’d been added later, but you had to open the sliding glass doors to the beranda at the back of the house, and then walk outside to the edge of the beranda where you’d find the toilet in a tiny closet-sized room, and then separately, the bath (another tiny room). There was a curtain that created a cubicle in front of the door to the bath, and this is where you’d get undressed and dressed. Yes, in the dead of winter, you’d be undressing outside to get into the bath. I found this a little daunting. Once in the bath itself, you’d stir it to make sure the heat was even, and then you’d wash outside the bathtub, and hop in to soak. Of course everyone in the family used the same bath water. 

After you finished bathing, you’d cover the bath tub to keep it warm for the next person.

On my first night there, I was honored to be the first one to use the bath. After that, I was treated like family and the order was: Otōsan, chōnan, jinan, me, okāsan. It was the mother who did the work of filling the bath, heating it, draining it each night or two, and cleaning it. I directed my thank you ojigi to her each night. Writing this now, it would seem absurd NOT to thank someone for the bath in Japan. When I visited my husband’s family I’d do it there as well. Note: My own parents would have thought I was crazy if I’d ever thanked them for a shawā I took at their home. It’s all about culture.

  • ojigi – お辞儀 a bow
  • arigatō – ありがとう casual way of saying thank you. There are many levels of politeness in greetings. One general rule of thumb is the longer they are, the politer and the shorter they are, the more casual.
  • ofuro – お風呂 the bath. Note that the honorific “o” is attached because I wouldn’t dream of saying it without honoring it.
  • beranda – ベランダ veranda. There is no equivalent to the “v” sound in Japanese, so when they borrow an English word like this, v usually changes to b. Usually….
  • otōsan – お父さん father
  • chōnan – 長男 oldest son
  • jinan – 次男 second son
  • okāsan – お母さん mother

The No-Speed Bicycle

Kyoto is an easy city to get around since it is built on a grid. You can’t really get lost and it is pretty flat, so a jitensha is ideal for getting around. I quickly learned to ride one while carrying an umbrella. In fact, I quite naturally mastered the art of riding with an umbrella and bowing if I passed an acquaintance. It just comes naturally after you’ve been there during a rainy season.

I had a mamachari of course. This is a purely functional bicycle with no speeds, but at least one basket. It was fine in the daytime, but at night it was much harder to pedal because the required light was powered by pedaling. You could switch it off on small streets, but if an omawarisan caught you, you might be fined. At the very least admonished.

The police also ride bikes….

I’d pedal home to Midorogaike from downtown often stopping on the way for a nikuman or ochazuke at a small sunakku that was on my route. I didn’t have a kagi on my bike but it was pretty run down and I never had a bike stolen in Kyoto. Tokyo is another story, though.

Ochazuke – sometimes the pickles are the best part

Just as I’d gotten pretty good at holding an umbrella while I rode, others had honed their own particular bicycle skills. One night I was walking home from the sentō holding my basin and towel in both hands in front of me. I heard a jitensha come up behind me which was nothing new, but darned if this guy didn’t ride past and grab me in the chest! With perfect aim! And he was gone before I could even properly react. I’d been accosted by a chikan!

That’s the only time that happened to me and to be honest, I couldn’t help but slightly admire his excellent aim. WIsh I had reflexes good enough to react, but who would expect such a thing?!

  • jitensha 自転車 bicycle
  • mamachari ママチャリ the kind of bicycle used by mothers for grocery shopping and transporting kids on either the front, back, or both.
  • omawarisan – お巡りさん police officer
  • nikuman – 肉饅 a kind of dumpling with meat inside
  • ochazuke – お茶漬け a bowl of rice with tea poured over it, usually served with a variety of pickles in Kyoto. It can also have salmon, or other ingredients with it. It’s a great late night snack.
  • sunakku – スナック Okay, you’re looking at it and you think it means snack. And it does… now. But in the 1970s this is what we called a bar. I think it is falling out of favor now, but you can still see signage for older bars using this term.
  • kagi – 鍵 key. Also means lock, so lock and key. Ponder that.
  • sentō – 銭湯 public bath. I’ll write more about that I am sure.
  • chikan -痴漢 pervert. If someone grabs you on the train, you should yell this at the top of your lungs to get attention.