story | Rhyhan Astha, Contributing Reporter
photo | Rhyhan Astha, Contributing Reporter
Singapore’s open arms towards people from other countries have allowed it to become the exemplary multicultural country that it is today. Yale-NUS College exemplifies this; international students make up 40% of the student body.
For these international students, Singaporean culture might be a frustrating barrier to overcome, which leads them to feel alienated and homesick. From constant usage of Singlish to choping seats in food courts (or the Performance Hall), Singaporean culture can often be very different from that of an international student’s home culture.
At the same time, Singapore also heavily embraces other cultures, in particular Japan’s. The Singaporean marketplace is saturated with Japanese names like Daiso, Japan Home, Muji, Don Don Donki, Takashimaya and Tokyu Hands. How do Japanese students feel about these stores? Do these stores make it easier for Japanese students to overcome homesickness?
Hana Kameike ’22, a Japanese student, says, “It’s flattering that Singapore has so many Japanese stores.” She says of her experience in Daiso, a Japanese goods store, “I was especially surprised when I walked into the Daiso here and the store clerks greeted me with an enthusiastic いらっしゃいませ (irasshaimase)!” Clearly, Japanese brands go to great lengths to emulate their Japanese counterparts as closely as possible in their Singaporean franchise operations.
Amongst Singaporeans, there is a perception that Japanese items are “superior in quality,” says Chloe Chua ’22, a Singaporean Yale-NUS student. She says, “I’m a frequent shopper at Muji in particular because I really love the branding and style: the practicality and simplicity of Muji’s designs (the ‘no brand’ brand) is very appealing.” Another Singaporean student, Amirul Hakim ’22, also praises Muji, saying that the stores have a “cleaner look [and] earthy tone.”
Nonetheless, these are slight differences between the original Japanese brands and their Singaporean counterparts, notably in the price levels. Michiru Agarie ’22, another Japanese Yale-NUS student, says, “Daiso is much, much cheaper in Japan. Here it’s SGD $2, […] in Japan it’s 100 yen for everything.”
Singapore’s multicultural population also influences what is sold in Japanese-styled stores. For example, popular food stores in Singapore that sell Japanese cuisine, such as Makisan, incorporate local flavours such as Chili Crab. Additionally, Kameike also says, “Japan isn’t very sensitive to halal restrictions, so most Japanese menus include pork.” This is not true for Makisan, which is a halal-certified food chain.
However, not all of these differences are positive. Occasionally, there are glaring errors in the store’s branding that remind Japanese shoppers that they are definitely in a foreign country. Agarie says, “It’s really weird when you find something that is Japanese and you read the descriptions, and they look like Japanese, but some words just don’t make sense.”
As a result, Kameike says, “I’m wary [of going into Japanese shops]. Rather than places to relieve my homesickness, they serve more as reminders of how far away from home I am.” These shops, while alluring to customers in Singapore, can heighten the sense of displacement and difference experienced by international students.
Due to their imitative nature, Agarie also feels that the Japanese shops here increase her sense of longing for home. “The shops are similar enough to compare with each other, but different enough to criticise,” she says. There are also less tangible factors that differentiate Japanese stores in Singapore and Japan that make the stores an even less accurate representation of Japanese shopping culture. Agarie says, “Living in Japan for 18 years gives you a sense of not only the products sold there, but the overall atmosphere and the vibe of the store.”
For Singaporeans who live in a foreign country, the atmosphere of a space is also important for them not to feel homesick. Chua says, “Having a space that has the ‘vibe’ of Singapore […] would serve as a safe haven or resource to turn to in a foreign land.”
Yet, when put in the same shoes as Japanese international students in Singapore, Singaporeans too share the same sense of skepticism towards the prospect of having Singaporean stores overseas. “If poorly executed, it might not help that such stores grossly misrepresent my home, and it would make me even more homesick,” says Hakim.