Society December 2015

UK through the eyes of a Japanese comedian

In November, comedian Yuriko Kotani won the BBC Radio New Comedy Award 2015—the result of a nationwide search to find the best new stand-up talent—with a very entertaining sketch on British society as seen through her eyes.

She spoke of the punctuality of the British train system compared to its Japanese counterpart. In Japan, Kotani said, trains are on time. A sign that she saw, trumpeting that 93% of trains on London Overground ran within five minutes of their scheduled time over a given month would, in her home country, she said, be seen as an apology—or a confession.

People in the UK are more laid back and relaxed, she said, whereas Japanese society has to operate efficiently as people don’t have time to “mess about”.

Kotani gave an hilarious example of Britons’ love of the term “ish”, as she recalled a conversation in which she suggested meeting her mother at 1ish. This idea was not well received.

The example, as related by Kotani, served to show British people’s comparatively more flexible attitude to time keeping, something that would not be acceptable in her home country.

Her performance represented some of the things that Japanese people living in the UK find very different yet, in Kotani’s case, mildly refreshing.

Comparing life in Japan to living like a robot, she said she loves the UK, where she has lived for 11 years. Long-term Japanese residents in the UK, who have embraced the less structured aspect of society and enjoy the freedom it can bring, have echoed this sentiment.

However, while such differences may be welcomed by some, they may cause others immense frustration, especially those who have never lived outside of their cultural norms.

For newly arrived Japanese expats in the UK, even small cultural differences in a business setting can cause problems. These may range from annoyance, frustration and miscomprehension, to cynicism and, in some cases, even a complete inability to function in a cross-cultural team.

As an expat unfamiliar with the context of your host culture, you can easily experience bewilderment at why things are different, and jump to somewhat negative conclusions when comparing that culture with your own.

Humour can be incredibly useful to relieve these frustrations and promote understanding. However, it is often said that British people rely on humour too much to laugh at their quirky little idiosyncrasies, and do not appreciate the impact they may have on others.

Anyone who wants to work cross-culturally really has to be aware of cultural differences to function effectively.

Full performance by Kotani: