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39 important things to help you prepare for the next World Scout Jamboree

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If you’re one of the lucky 30,000 young people, or members of the adult international service team, who’ll be attending the next World Scout Jamboree in Japan, you’re probably already fundraising and you may even be getting to know your fellow Unit members.   It isn’t too early to start preparing for the culture-shock of visiting a country that is very different from your own.   What follows is based on the brilliant advice that my friend Callum Farquhar, a Scottish Scout Leader, has given to his Scouts when visiting the country, along with a few things I’ve picked up on my own visits.    When I shared these with Japanese friends they agreed they were pretty accurate – and they made them laugh as well!

  1. People in Japan bow — a lot. It’s their version of the handshake, only more complex, and failing to return a bow is considered impolite. Practise before you go.   It feels very strange at first, but you soon get used to it.
  2. If you’re invited to someone’s home, bring a gift. It’s useful to have a range of small gifts with you on each occasion that you may need them so that you have something appropriate for everyone.   Tea towels with pictures local to your home area are light, unbreakable and provide a talking point.
  3. Western-style lavatories are generally found in larger department stores and many restaurants. In fact, if you’re looking for the latest in high-tech facilities, Japan is the place to go.   Be ready to experience a jet of warm water to get your bottom extra clean – and even hot air to dry you off, all whilst still sitting down.   But, you’ll also come across “squat” lavatories.  These are a porcelain bowl sunk into the floor that you squat over (uncomfortable for those of us used to sitting), facing the wall.   Hygienic, certainly, but very strange, if you’re not used to them.   And I’m not.
  4. When you use the lavatory in someone’s home you may need to put on designated bathroom slippers so as not to contaminate the rest of the home.
  5. Raw horse meat is a popular food in some parts of Japan.   You may well find yourself eating it during home hospitality.
  6. Sometimes the trains are so crowded railway staff are employed to cram passengers inside.   Be ready to experience a different understanding of ‘personal space’.   (Unless, of course, you have grown up in London and are used to using the tube during rush hour…)
  7. Poorly written English can be found everywhere, including T-shirts and other fashion items.   Don’t snigger.   Just how good is your Japanese?   Be polite about it to your hosts.   Politeness is an art that the Japanese have taken to a level unknown by the rest of the world.
  8. More than 70% of Japan consists of mountains, including more than 200 volcanoes.    Mt. Fuji, the tallest mountain in Japan, is an active volcano (although scientists have not reached a consensus on what defines “active”).
  9. Religion does not play a big role in the lives of most Japanese and many do not understand the difference between Shintoism and Buddhism.  However, there are also many Japanese who do understand the difference.   It might be worth doing a  bit of homework before you go.
  10. Fruit can be extortionately expensive.  A really good melon, similar to a cantaloupe, may sell for over £150 GBP.  For example, a nice specimen of Yubari melon.  These are often physically perfect, not like their European counterparts with dark smudges and scars.
  11. There are four different writing systems in Japan; Romaji, Katakana, Hiragana, and Kanji.
  12. Coffee is very popular and Japan imports approximately 85% of Jamaica’s annual coffee production.
  13. Japan’s literacy rate is almost 100%.
  14. Sumo is Japan’s national sport, although baseball is also very popular.   If you get the opportunity to see either, grab it.   You get a whole new view of the Japanese psyche when you’re with a crowd of people watching sport.
  15. On average there are around 1,500 earthquakes every year in Japan.   But don’t worry.   The Jamboree site has been carefully chosen.
  16. In Japan it is not uncommon to eat rice at every meal, including breakfast.
  17. The Japanese language has thousands of foreign loan words, known as gairaigo. These words are often truncated, e.g. personal computer = paso kon. The number of foreign loan words is steadily increasing.
  18. Fast food is popular.    The Japanese don’t say McDonalds, they say Ma-ku-do around the Kansai area or Ma-ku-do-nal-do in the rest of Japan. Of course, the name change is just the beginning…   Be ready for Teriyaki Burgers and the McPork Sandwich.
  19. The term karaoke means “empty orchestra” in Japanese.
  20. Raised floors help indicate when to take off shoes or slippers. At the entrance to a home in Japan, the floor will usually be raised about 6 inches indicating you should take off your shoes and put on slippers. If the house has a tatami mat room its floor may be rasied 1-2 inches indicating you should to take off your slippers.
  21. Ramen noodles are a popular food in Japan and it is widely believed extensive training is required to make a delicious soup broth. This is the subject of the movies Tampopo (1985) and The Ramen Girl (2008).
  22. Ovens are not nearly as commonplace as rice cookers in Japanese households.
  23. Some Japanese companies conduct a morning exercise session for the workers to prepare them for the day’s work.
  24. Many companies hire people to hand out small packages of tissues which include a small advertisement flyer.  If you’re offered a pack, do take it.   Public lavatories are often short of lavatory paper…
  25. Blowing your nose in public is considered to be bad manners. Excuse yourself and go into the lavatory.   Strangely enough, sniffing is not seen as rude.
  26. Expect to use a public bath at least once.   They’re still a normal place for people to wash in Japan. Men and women bathe separately. Someone will guide you through the process, but the ritual is generally the same in all situations: first, remove your clothing and (after discretely covering the front of your body with your washcloth), proceed to the bath area; before actually entering the bath, you must first wash yourself. Basins and stools are situated near taps — fill the basin with water, sit on the stool, soap down completely, then rinse off the soap. Once you’re clean, then you may enter the bath. The water will be very hot, but as you relax, you’ll learn to love it.
  27. The legal age for drinking alcohol in Japan is 20.
  28. When drinking in public, always allow someone else to fill your glass (tricky if there are just two of you), and never allow the glasses of your companions to get completely empty.
  29. The traditional salute is “kampai” (kahm-pie). Chin chin refers to male genitals. Just a warning.
  30. If you’ve got a tattoo, be ready to cover it up, with a plaster if it’s on skin that isn’t hidden by your clothes..  Tattoos are considered a symbol of a criminal gang and many public baths and swimming pools will not allow those with tattoos to enter.
  31. Slurp your noodles! This is quite acceptable and in fact it’s even considered rude not to do so. For noodle soup, use your chopsticks for the noodles, meat and vegetables and bring the bowl to your mouth to drink the liquid. Spoons aren’t usually provided.
  32. Shoes are considered unclean and generally, shoes are removed before entering Japanese homes, temples, ryokan, and various other public places (including some restaurants). Again, it’s helpful to follow the lead of locals — don’t panic, your shoes won’t be stolen while you’re off touring a temple.
  33. When you are required to sit on the floor, either tuck your legs underneath you or sit cross-legged. Don’t stretch your legs out in front of you.
  34. Visiting cards, or business cards, are essential.  They’re exchanged immediately on meeting someone – presented with both hands and the writing facing the person you’re giving the card to.   Examine their card carefully.  It’s rude just to put it immediately in your pocket.
  35. There are vending machines everywhere.  They’re on street corners, in shopping malls and will even be on the Jamboree site.   They generally serve drinks (hot and cold) although in Japan you can pretty much buy anything and everything from a vending machine.
  36. You may find that you won’t be given a bed if you stay in someone’s home.  Instead you’ll get a mattress that lies on the floor, like a futon.   Your pillow might also be a bit harder than you are used to.  Don’t worry.   It’ll be more comfortable than your tent at the Jamboree.
  37. Walls in Japanese homes can often be very, very thin.   Sound travels.   You have been warned.
  38. At the practice camp for the Jamboree, it was very, very hot and very, very humid.   You may wish to pack a small towel to dip in cold water and wear round your neck.   You’ll feel an idiot for about thirty seconds 0 and then you’ll see that all the Japanese Scouts are wearing them.   They really do help you to feel cooler.    Remember to take on fluids during the day, a little at a time but often.   If you feel thirsty, then you’ve already left it too long since your last drink.
  39. Practise eating with chopsticks.   You’ll need to have mastered the skill of doing so or you will go hungry.   There are a number of rules associated with chopsticks. Try to avoid:
  • spearing the food with your chopsticks
  • placing your chopsticks on the table between courses – use the chopstick rests provided
  • using your chopsticks to rummage around in a dish trying to find what you want. If serving chopsticks haven’t been provided, it is polite to use the other end of your chopsticks (the end that hasn’t been in your mouth) to take food from communal plates.
  • passing food to somebody else with your chopsticks
  • waving your chopsticks above a dish while trying to decide what to take next
  • standing your chopsticks vertically in the rice. This is how rice is served to the dead.

16 Comments

  1. Richard Narumi Richard Narumi

    Another helpful pointer is that many Japanese restrooms do not have paper towels to dry your hands. You should carry a handkerchief for such an event.

  2. Shauna Shauna

    Are the japanese people willing to feed vegitarians the appropriate food?

    • John May John May

      Shauna, there will be vegetarian food at the Jamboree. In homestay, you can explain that you’re vegetarian, but the term isn’t widely understood, I think. The word for Western-styled vegetarians is “bejitarian,” which is a borrowed loan word from English. There is a native concept, too: saishokushugisha, but this doesn’t really cover everything: saishokushugisha and “bejitariansu” can still eat fish in Japan. Please don’t worry though, I’m sure our hosts within The Scout Association of Japan will do all they can to help host families understand what’s needed.

      • John May John May

        Handy phrases
        Firstly, you should try to learn as much food vocab as possible. Niku is meat, sakana is fish, hamu is ham, toriniku is chicken, yasai is vegetable, as in ‘yasai pizza’ (not a hard one to remember). Cheese is another of those imported words – chisu – and egg is tamago. You can get other food words from any Japanese phrasebook (I recommend the Lonely Planet one). Here are some handy sentences:

        Niku wa tabemasen = I don’t eat meat
        Niku to sakana to hamu to toriniku wa tabemasen = I don’t eat meat or fish or hamu or chicken
        Watashi wa bejitarian desu = I’m a vegetarian
        Saishokushugi desu = I’m a vegetarian
        Bejitarian no ryori ga arimasu ka = Do you have any vegetarian dishes?
        Kono ryori ni niku ga haitte imasu ka = Does this dish contain meat?

  3. Troll Troll

    In the Fab Zone there will be a tent for the 3 Japanese Faiths of: Shinto, Konkyo Kyo and Sekai Kyusei Kyo. There will also be about 10 tents for the different Japanese Buddhist schools. The Japanese say that they live their lives as Shinto and die as Buddhist. Many Buddhists will also say prayers to Shinto “Kami” (spirits) when passing a Shinto shrine. As neither Buddhism or Shinto followers believe in a God, most Japanese see no contradiction in following both Buddhism and Shinto

  4. Brilliant piece John. I will be referring to this often over the next 18 months

  5. Great piece, we started our own preparations with the Dutch Contingent (Corpus Troop). I’ll be referring it to our staff. Good luck with the preparations.

  6. Susanne Heinrich Susanne Heinrich

    Really good hints. Thank you John. One impression from my first stay in Japan: You will find only a very small number (or none) of dustbins in the streets and public places. Although the towns are really clean and tidy. For scouts it´s not a new idea, to take care for your rubbish. But you should be prepared to carry it with you longer than expected.

  7. Excellent summary. I have been to Japan many times, and your comments are accurate. Note that most of the toilets at the WSJ will be western style. But some cultures only use the squat type so you will find both types there. If you find yourself using a squat type remove your wallet or anything else in your back pockets that could fall into the hole. It is very unpleasant to retrieve it from the loo.

  8. docbill1351 docbill1351

    I guess waving a single chopstick over your food and shouting, “Accio Soy Sauce!” is frowned upon.

  9. Great list! Thank you! I will share it with our Estonian Contingent 🙂

  10. karunya karunya

    hello! from the indian contingent! looking forward to meeting u!

  11. Linda Linda

    Sharing with our Crew in the USA!

  12. Robert Clay Robert Clay

    I have one more comment to make. John pointed out that it is not polite to spear your food with your chop sticks. I have seen one exception to that “rule”. Tofu is normally served in cubes about an inch wide. It is soft and difficult to pick up without breaking apart. I have seen many Japanese spear a tofu piece with both chop sticks and eat it. I have tried it, and it works. I have also tried picking up tofu without spearing it, and if you don’t handle it gently, it will break. So now I just spear it like other Japanese I have observed.

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