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Culture shock 101: Marines Experience a New World

Date Posted: 2004-04-08

CAMP HANSEN, Okinawa, Japan — The initial shock experienced in boot camp is something service members never forget. The frightful sounds of a drill instructor’s voice or receiving two ounces of food during the first chowhall visit sends chills down their back. Although not as intense, the culture shock can be felt here. Both require effort in order to succeed.

Americans here have an opportunity to learn about a whole new culture and see many different sights they would never have the chance to admire back in the United States. However, before going out and enjoying the experience of this new world there are a few things Americans should know to be better accepted out in town, according to Kaori Tanahara, editor, Okina-Wa magazine.

“Having an Okinawan fiancée, I try to encourage my junior Marines to go out and try to make some Japanese friends. I think it’s a good thing for them to try and learn more about this country. There are a lot of Marines that are going to be here for at least one year and there are a lot of ways they can get in trouble. I think it’s more positive if they get out and make new friends to teach and learn from as well,” said Cpl. Edward Grant Jr., bulk fuel specialist, Bulk Fuel Company, 9th Engineer Support Battalion, 3rd Force Service Support Group and Pinson, Ala. native.

Tanahara said Okinawans are generally shy people. When trying to make new friends, you can never be too polite. Offer a smile and try to say a few words in Japanese to break the ice. Most of the younger Okinawans can speak some English but are afraid to use it because they’re afraid to say the wrong word. If you try to speak a little Japanese, even if you stumble over a word or two, they won’t be as hesitant to make a mistake of their own. This is a great way to try and learn from each other.

“Most Okinawans like to help others. If you want to ask an Okinawan to go to a restaurant just ask nicely. Say something like, ‘I like sushi, can you help me pick some?,’” Tanahara said.

Americans may also be invited to an Okinawan’s home. As a guest it is polite to wait to be directed. Okinawan’s will tell you ‘please come in’ or ‘please sit down’. When entering the house it is expected that you will take off your shoes. To impress your host, turn your shoes so you can just step into them when leaving the house. This will show them you have some knowledge of their culture. Some homes will have slippers to offer but with big American feet, the slippers may not fit. You and your host may get a good laugh out of it, according to Tanahara.

While at the house, try bowing instead of shaking hands. During conversation and while dining you might sit on the floor rather than in a chair. This being the case, it is proper for men to sit cross-legged and ladies to sit on their knees. These positions may be uncomfortable and your host might tell you to feel free to stretch your legs.

“When interacting with Okinawans it’s all about manners. Always be polite and don’t refuse to try something new,” said Chiyoko Kochi, community relations specialist, Camp Hansen.

According to Kochi, most Okinawans will offer something to drink, usually green tea. Even if you don’t like the tea, take a small sip before asking for something else. It is not polite and may insult the host if you leave it untouched. When offered anything like tea, candies or cookies you should say ‘domo arigato’ to show you appreciate the gesture.

When eating out, if there are tables and chairs it is acceptable to leave your shoes on but if there are tatami mats (woven mats to sit or walk on), then as with entering a home, shoes should be left at the door or in a shoe rack if one is available. If using chopsticks instead of a fork, don’t leave them sticking out of your meal because it is considered insulting. If you can’t finish something, just lay the chopsticks off to the side. When paying for the meal most places will have a tray next to the cash register. Yen, or dollars if accepted, should be placed in the tray. Traditionally, the trays made counting yen easier because the coins were easier to see.

While around Okinawans, also remember you are new to them. It’s not customary for Okinawan men to open doors or pull out chairs for women, but it doesn’t hurt to show them some traditional American respect. They might wonder why you’re doing things for them but they will appreciate it regardless.

“Remember most Okinawans are shy. If you want to interact with them you need to open up yourself. Sometimes you need to be patient for them to respond to you. It’s our culture not to be rude to others so we tend to hold back instead of speaking up or stepping forward to become closer to you. Give it time and don’t forget to show you’re a friendly person,” Tanahara said.

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