Since returning to Japan, I’ve been reminded how this culture can destroy your personailty. I think I see it most clearly in restaurants. It never really hit me till now just how mechanical the servers are. Almost everything they say is completely scripted. “Is that all for your order?” “Thank you very much, please come again.” Japanese equivalents of those kinds of phrases. Their faces betray no emotion.

It’s like someone has replaced all the people with robots. Very polite robots that give the best customer service you ever imagined and don’t require tips. In Japan, that’s what good and polite service looks like. To really understand this, you’d have to be here and see the young men and women working these minimum wage jobs.

But it’s a bit dehumanizing. It’s like there’s a perfect way to be a server, a perfect set of statements to say, and you’re trying to live up to that model. And that model excludes your personality. I mention this cultural tidbit because it’s far deeper that minimum wage jobs. In Japan, the culture tells you to stuff down and hide anything unpleasant about yourself. Any sin or rudeness or offence must be hidden, and your exterior must be perfect. If you secretly hate your parents because they never hugged you and showed affection after you started elementary school… well, pretend it’s different and don’t talk to anyone about that. You can see why loneliness and depression are so rampant in this great nation.

There’s nothing more wonderful than seeing a Japanese person in Japan with a heartfelt smile. When I arrived, I hit off a short converation at the airport with two middle-aged ladies, and I loved talking about silly topics like where I’d lived before in Japan, the cold weather (a welcome refresher after Bangkok), and how kind the Japanese people are. And I said to myself, “Praise Jesus, I haven’t completely forgotten Japanese!” We enjoyed our little talk.

Out in the countryside or in a mom and pop shop, you can actually see these beautiful personalities. I still remember fun conversations with old ladies in their restaurants in Kagawa, how they were surprised to see me and loved to talk. A man in his fifties who owned Shiruba Roodo (English translation: Silver Road) never realized that he was actually my Japanese teacher whenever I visited his restaurant.

Modern Japan has turned people into turtles. You must wear a shell around your true self, and you must never come out of that shell, often even to your family and closest friends. I yearn for the day when the true beauty of the people of Japan will shine out.