Ten things I love about Japan and Korea…

I’m in Seoul Korea, doing talks and promotion for Oxford University Press. Next weekend, I’ll be at the Japanese Association of Language Teachers (JALT) conference in Tokyo.

I flew into Tokyo from London on Thursday and then on to Seoul. In the first 24 hours of this visit to Asia, I was reminded of the things I really like about being in this part of the world, things which in some cases are almost the exact opposite of how thing are where I live.

1         Japanese customs and immigration people

OK, maybe I was lucky.

After landing at Tokyo Narita Airport, I had to pick up my luggage and transfer to another terminal to catch my flight to Seoul. On the British Airways plane, they had said transit passengers didn’t need to fill in immigration or customs forms, but I knew I had to go through both before I could catch the other plane, so I did. I was a little bit anxious about getting through the system, as I can only speak a few words of Japanese. I didn’t think it would be much use saying ‘Hello, can I have a beer?’ to anyone I might have to talk to.

I showed my passport, immigration form and travel itinerary to the immigration man and his face lit up. He was really pleased to be able to practise his English. He explained in very good English what I had to do.

I then picked up my luggage and went through the Customs area. When I showed my travel itinerary to the customs man, he shouted a loud ‘Oh!’ and ran into an office.

I was half dreading that when he came back, he would say something like “Mister Wilson, will you do us the honour of allowing us to give you a full body search?” but no, he came back with a map of the airport, and showed me clearly where I had to go to catch the transit bus.

My introduction of Asia couldn’t have run more smoothly.

2    Fast trains

Japanese bullet trains - they just get sleeker and sleeker...

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m nuts about trains and the Japanese were the first people to research and produce really fast trains – the Shinkansen, bullet train. I remember the first time I travelled on one in 1979 – what a brilliant experience. And the service is so elegant – at first, I wasn’t sure about ticket inspectors and trolley people bowing when they left the carriage, but now I love it.

Korea, like many other countries in the region, also has excellent fast train services. The service is good and the trains are spotless.

In Britain…um…

3    Public cleanliness

I know there are other things that I should get more steamed up about – child poverty, greedy bankers, global warming – but the one thing that is guaranteed to get me really angry is the sight of someone dropping litter.

You simply don’t see people doing that in Japan and Korea. The 2002 soccer World Cup was staged in both these countries, and the local interest was massive – there was no way that all the people who wanted tickets were going to see some of the games live.

So television screens were set up in public places. It’s estimated that TWO MILLION people watched the game between South Korea and Spain in a big central square in Seoul. When the crowd dispersed, there wasn’t so much as a paper carton left in the square.

Why can’t everyone behave like that?

4    Japanese soccer hairstyles

A J-League team - funny way to stand for a picture, eh?

The 2002 World Cup was also the time when the Japanese team decided to go hair crazy. Japanese people have … er … black hair, right? But during one game, every single one of the starting eleven had dyed their hair a different colour. It was a bit of a let-down in fact when a substitute came on and had regular black hair.

In the wider teenage community, hairstyles seem to matter a lot – maybe someone who lives or has lived in Japan could add a note about why they think this is the case.

Members of the Japanese national soccer team politely ordering breakfast at Gare du Nord, Paris

5    The way young people dress

The colour clashes, oh the colour clashes!

The way Tokyo young people, particularly girls, dress reminds me a bit of London. Absolutely anything is possible, people wear the most outrageous clashing colours. Somehow they seem to carry it off.

6         Tokyo by night

I only know certain areas of Tokyo, like Shinjuku. If you remember the scene in Lost In Translation where Bill Murray arrives in the city, you’ll know that the place is full of dazzlingly bright lights. But it also seems a very safe place to wander around, and there is always something amazing to see.

I’m sure Seoul is the same, but somehow I’ve never had the chance to wander round the night-life area of the city.

Maybe this time!

7         The attitude to work

When I checked in my luggage at the Asiana Airlines counter at Narita Airport, the woman check-in clerk printed out the tag for my suitcase. At that point, a mature gentleman stepped forward, took the tag from the woman and attached it to my case. He then bowed and stepped back. When I passed him, he smiled and wished me a pleasant journey in English.

I’ve noticed that there seem to be a lot of people who do quite menial tasks like this, but do them with grace and dignity. At the door to most educational establishments, there are men in uniform whose only job appears to be to wave a flag to indicate that you can proceed into the car park.

Mrs Thatcher made sure that most jobs like this disappeared in the UK. Even if they still existed, I doubt whether people would carry them out in such a professional way.

8         Sumo

Sumo wrestlers at work - for some reason, this picture reminds me of the Isle of Man three-legged flag...

I don’t really understand sumo, but I am hooked on watching it on TV. We all know that a sumo fight can last barely ten seconds. If it lasts thirty seconds, it’s an epic. But if you only see the fights themselves, you miss the best part.

You have to watch the live performances, not the highlights. That way, you see the amazing build-up, with one or other of the fighters crouching down to start and then deciding to shuffle around for a while until his head is right.

Then BAM!!!!!!!!! – the greatest collision of human flesh in the world.

And at the end, maximum respect shown to the opponent, win or lose. We have SO much to learn in the west!

9         Karaoke

A typical well-organised night down the karaoke bar...

OK, OK … karaoke is a bit naff in the UK, partly I think because there are still pubs where the karaoke section isn’t separate, so you have to put up with listening to a bunch of guys wearing ‘Len’s Stag Night 2011’ T-shirts.

Karaoke shouldn’t be like that – it should be you and your pals in a separate room, like it is here in Asia. And that’s what I’m hoping we’ll be doing on Sunday night at the JALT conference.

10   Mobile music

And, lest we forget, Japan produced the first truly mobile music machine – the Sony Walkman. The original played cassettes.

I first saw someone wearing headphones in public on a subway station in Tokyo in 1979 when I was there with the English Teaching Theatre and I thought – I HAVE to get one of those. 

I saved up my pennies and got one. A few years later,  Sony introduced the Discman, which played CDs. I got one of those too eventually – they were monumentally expensive, as I remember.

I was actually a bit disappointed with the Discman – you couldn’t wear it when you were jogging, because it jumped from track to track. Or at least mine did.

But we should never forget that the Walkman was a game-changer, and probably had the young Steve Jobs scratching his chin to come up with something that did the same thing, only better…

I just checked and 1979 was the year that the Walkman was launched so the guy I saw was a VERY early adopter. 🙂

The OUP Japan gang wearing their Smart Choice T-shirts - if you look carefully, you'll find some of the karaoke gang in there as well...

And finally, the reason I’m here. For the last four years, Korean and Japanese students have been using my book Smart Choice. Part of the reason I’m here is to promote the second edition. End of commercial!

With OUP Korea staff at the last OUP Day I attended, in 2007

You will see that I have accentuated the positive in the above notes. I’d be keen to hear from people who live and work – or have lived and worked – in this region. If you want to paint a different picture, please feel free. That’s what this forum is for!

And if you’re planning to come to the OUP Day in Seoul or the JALT conference in Tokyo, please come and say hello.


28 thoughts on “Ten things I love about Japan and Korea…

  1. Looking forward to seeing you Ken!

    All these things are true of Japan. But not true, too. One thing I hate about immigration is the fact that I have to line up separately from the rest of my family and give fingerprints like a criminal every time I enter, despite being a (fairly) respectable and member of society and long term resident. But, the officers are always very nice about it, so….

    When the Nagoya basho is on in the summer, some of the sumo wrestlers camp in a small shrine near my house. If you get up early you can go and watch them at morning training. Very cool!

    1. Hi Darren,

      True but not true – seems to be a theme about Japan. I remember when I was in Japan a previous time, there was a debate going on the Japan Times after someone had said he was glad to be leaving after ten years in the country. It seems that every time some other expat made a comment about life in Japan – what schools were like, how neighbours were helpful or not – someone immediately wrote something with the opposing views. It’s clearly a Marmite country. 🙂

      See you next week.

  2. Hi Ken,
    I am always very delighted by your blogs as when ı read them, I am so much engrossed by them that I can easily visualise what you are talking about. At 6:00 in the morning, I travelled to Tokyo. No doubt that Japanese are great, organised, respectful people, and we all have a lot to learn from them. Their attitude in the fukushima earth-quake was a clear proof of it . Good luck gita

    1. Hi Gita – for a moment then I thought you had REALLY travelled to Tokyo 🙂

      Glad you enjoyed the blog – read Sean’s note below for some more great things about Japan

  3. Hi Ken,
    A cool list. I too love all of the above. Sumo is my second favorite sport – totally addicted to it. I also remember my first bullet train ride and love the real experience every time I take a shinkansen.
    10 more things among hundreds, thousands… for which I’m going back to Japan forever in February:
    1. The hot and cold towels you are given to refresh or warm your face (depending on the season) when you go to a coffee shop.
    2. Festivals – there’s always something colorful and amazingly photogenic around the corner
    3. Rice paddies – so unbeatably green.
    4. The speed of the Internet.
    5. Speed of service with a smile.
    6. Country roads – pretty empty and wherever I drive I feel I’m sightseeing.
    7. The food!!!!!
    8. Temples and shrines – can never get enough of the peace they fill you with.
    9. The seasons, which have so much cultural and spiritual feeling and meaning.
    10. The cooperative spirit with which Japanese people work together.

    Come and visit next time 🙂

    1. Oh yes – the towels! Since my first visit to Japan 30-odd years ago, my hands always feel sticky the minute I sit down in a restaurant.

      You’re coming back to Japan, Sean?? Breaking news! You’ll be glad to know that I’ll be giving you another honourable mention in my JALT plenary. 🙂

      1. Thanks Ken – Unfortunately, I won’t be able to get to JALT until Nov 2012. Is that in your schedule?
        I bought a house in Japan a few months ago. Looking forward to the snow, watching the rice grow from my desk, fireflies and a whole lot more.

  4. Hi Ken, thank you for your very interesting post about Asian experiences. I have always dreamed to visit Japan. Now you made my dreams even stronger although I am afraid they will remain dreams. Wish you a nice stay there. Kati

  5. Hi, Ken,

    Sounds like JALT 2011 will be a very special conference, too! I’ve just returned from TESOL France which was a memorable experience and I can confirm that Paris was a perfect venue for the TESOL Karaoke!

    Would love to attend JALT, having now met @SWH_Japan, @vladkaslniecko @chucksandy

    With you, Darren & Sean attending sounds like it’s a Smart Choice indeed!

    Have always longed to attend a Cherry Blossom Festival, maybe Breaking News has a lesson about all the wonderful colourful festivals, Sean?

    See you (virtually) at the plenary,


  6. Lovely stuff Ken. As an East Asia-phile, I heartily agree.

    Since Sean added his top 10 for Japan, I thought I’d add my own for Korea…

    1) Fish tanks on the streets.
    2) An absolutely brilliant alphabet which can be learned in about three hours and has led to 100% literacy rates.
    3) Namdaemun market in Seoul.
    4) If it can be anthropomorphised, it will be anthropomorphised.
    5) It’s the only country in the world which doesn’t call it karaoke (I guess!). When in Korea, you need to go to the noraebang.
    6) Thousands of years of history around you.
    7) That they have the ability to get on with life despite having the most unruly neighbours imaginable.
    8) No, and I mean literally zero, fat people (I’ve nothing against them, but it shows how healthy Korean food is and how well they look after themselves).
    9) Infinite Challenge, my favourite Korean TV show which seemed to involved a group of comedians dressing up in costumes and catching public transport.
    10) The world’s fastest Internet speeds!

    Since you’ve now written about Brazil and Korea, countries I used to live in, and Belgium, the country I currently live in, I look forward to your next list to find out where I’ll be living next!

    Have a great time Ken, I’m jealous!

  7. Dearest Ken – tudo bem??? Saudades!!!

    Lovely to hear about you in Tokyo/Seoul. I have never been to these parts of the globe. Next time, maybe the 10 things Ken likes about Fulham???

    I heard you will be in Brasília in 2012 through the Cultura Inglesa-Rio/Learning Factory.

    Abraços e beijos em Dede.

    Evandro Gueiros

  8. Hi Mr. Wilson,

    I really enjoyed your talk in Seoul on Saturday. Am sharing your ’10 ways’ with a young man teaching for the first time-5-7 hours a day no less. Sorry to inform you that litter is a big problem in Korea. The good thing is things tend to get cleaned up early mornings.

    1. Sorry to hear your opposing view, Jeff. We actually walked through Plaza Square yesterday during the demonstration on the way to the Nanta theatre performance and then back after it, and we saw just one plastic bottle in the entire square.

      1. As an aside to that – next time you watch a football game involving Japan’s national team, look closely at the fans. You’ll see many have blue bin liners (big ones) to clean up before they leave the stadium. There’s cleanliness 🙂

  9. Hi. Prof. Wilson

    I unexpectedly attended your lecture of introduction of the book ‘Smart Choice’ published by OXFORD In Dankuk university. (My friends took me there.^^)

    I learned seven points about how to teach students English from your lecture. It is fun and useful. If English classes I’ve attended were just like the way you taught, I could have learned English more easily.

    As a student, may I have your advice about how to improve English ability?

    I’m afraid of speaking English. Why? Because of almost no chance to practice and afraid of making some mistakes in grammar. I think most of Korea students also have such kind of problem. So, what do you think to improve this stuation?

    1. Hi Mugung Seo –

      I’m afraid it would take a day-long workshop to explore the reasons for Koreans not wanting to speak, and some practical solutions. The good news is that you recognise the problem. Forgetting about making mistakes is the big one – fluency is so much more fun to achieve than accuracy 🙂

  10. Hi Ken,

    I really enjoyed your plenary at JALT about motivation. The best thing was that you clearly practice what you preach. It was great to have an enthusiastic and passionate educator sharing their views on motivation – thanks.

    As for your notes about Japan, you make some very poignant observations. Unfortunately, as you say, there are always two sides to every issue. On the whole, I love living and working in Japan, and agree with most of them. Sometimes, though, when we dig beneath the surface, we uncover some uncomfortable truths.

    For example:

    1. Customs and immigration -> A man dying in the custody of Japanese immigration officials (http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/nn20100629a3.html)

    7. Attitude to work -> Death by overwork (for example http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/nn20110421a1.html, or http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/nn20000627b1.html)

    8. Sumo: unfortunately marred by a spate of recent scandals and ties with the Japanese mafia (yakuza) (e.g. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/nn20100802a3.html)

    These are among the issues that Japan needs to address and are often not seen from the outside.

    1. Thanks for that, Paul.

      As I said in my earlier reply to Darren, there always seem to be two sides to every story when you talk about Japan.

  11. Hi Ken, as a first time reader of your blog, I must say that this was a great post.

    I’m considering taking a trip to Japan in 2012 and this has only increased the chances of that happening.

    Your point about the litter is a massive thing for me. I come from near Manchester, and casting my mind back to the Europa League final, when Rangers fans swarmed the city, the main thing I remember was the mess that was left afterwards. The idea of a country where people actually respect it enough to tidy up after themselves is bliss.

    – Dale

  12. that right! some people who went there totally unprepared came back with joy, and some people who known something like read a lot books , keep saying that they would like to came back once more. i am going to get my schoralship for Hiroshima or go to travel throught osaka -kyoto-tokyo, ehime etc. Especially i can’t wait to arrive to Osaka:D i love food too! and who knows maybe one day i met a idol of my young days?:D

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