Jason has set foot again in the Land of the Rising Sun and started a new blog, "Japan Blog." Nice name. Ahem, on behalf of Japanese citizens, I would like to express a hearty welcome to .... uh, OK, OK, well, he has already posted several interesting entries on his encounters with things Japanese.
The "What are your Hobbies?" entry, among others, has got me thinking about the way Japanese people talk to strangers. He wonders why Japanese like to ask "What are your hobbies?", which I agree they (we?) actually do. I posted a comment there saying it's simply a handy question for Japanese who generally are not good at keeping conversation going when talking to people from other countries. However, after reading Kurt's comment in which he said he saw some Japanese TV talk show where the interviewee was asked "Shumi wa nan desu ka? (What are your hobbies?)", I began to wonder if this is a question that Japanese people really like to ask whatever the situation may be.
Come to think of it, this question is often heard in talks among Japanese as well. It must be a must-asked one at omiai (an arranged formal meeting where a man and a woman meet for the first time in the hope of marriage possibility), which I have never experienced in my life. ;) Oh, I remember when I was going to driving school in my college days, - uh, you know, you have to go to driving school for 1-2 months (!) to get a driver's license in Japan - the instructor asked me the question during a lesson, at which I was rather surprised because that was a totally unexpected one when practicing driving. Too bad the instructor was a man, huh?
Then, why? Hmm...why? It could be said that Japanese in general like to ask personal questions. And especially when talking to a person they see for the first time or don't know very well and want to be friendly with, they tend to ask such ones. You may sometimes find it annoying. Actually I sometimes do, though I'm Japanese. But they mean no offence; just want to know about you as much as possible. If they don't have any interest in you, they wouldn't ask such questions, maybe.
In this sense, among other personal topics that can be rude, "What are your hobbies?" would be a fairly good one. By asking this, which in Japanese sense is rather like "What do you like to do in your free time?", you can know what kind of person s/he is to some extent. Also, if the person has the same interests as you do, the talk will be an exciting one. Even if not, you can ask about it further, possibly making a familiar atmosphere among you.
Whether you will answer it seriously or not is up to you to decide, but when in Japan, I hope you won't frown at being asked "What are your hobbies?" frequently. No harm. Just get ready.