I regularly get asked by friends visiting Japan for the first time for tips on living here, so here is what came to mind, other than the obvious ones about taking your shoes off when you go inside.
First of all, the way Japanese think about things is conceptually different and sometimes totally opposite. This is where most foreigners become confused and uncomfortable.
Helping others and giving gifts.
In Japan, doing someone a favour puts obligation on them to repay you. Thus it’s not unusual for people in business to get into situations where they are continually sending each other gifts, the value carefully calculated based on custom.
When a couple are married, for example, at the wedding party it is obligatory for friends and family attending to give a special envelope containing an amount of money that can range from the equivalent of $100 to $500 (or possibly a lot more). However, the couple, in return, must buy a gift for each friend or family member worth half the amount of the amount in the envelope. It’s such a normal custom that there are companies that specialise in these gifts, with phonebook-thick catalogues of items, organised by price and type.
As well, when a person goes on holiday, they will buy locally made gifts, usually sweets or crackers or similar to share amongst co-workers or club members. In airports and train stations, stores stock copious amounts of local confectionary or snack foods for this purpose. Some even stock products from other cities for people who have forgotten to buy items locally or, say, salarymen who have told their wives they have been on a business trip when they have been having an affair.
When visiting the apartments or houses of friends or family, it is customary to bring, at the very least, some confectionary or snacks. In Japan, there are numerous chain stores that cater to this, scattered around cities, never very far away, making it easy to drop by one on the way.
Thus, it’s a good idea to bring a lot of gifts from your home country. Make sure they are locally made (and not in China or elsewhere). As you spend time in Japan, give them to people who help you or whom you work or do things with. Even if they are small, they will be very grateful.
Out and about
Back in Australia, I know I’m used to a good couple of walls between myself at the urinal and the outside world, but here in Japan, there is a urinal in the city facing a main road on a busy footpath with … nothing between you and everyone seeing you. It’s not the only one either. The reason for this is that our cultural concept of politely hiding anything embarrassing from seen by others exists in reverse in Japan where it’s polite not to look.
Similarly, you’ll see half-naked elderly people out on their balcony hanging their underwear out to dry without the slightest self-consciousness. For 5 years I lived in an apartment facing others where the neighbours had no curtains. Likewise, they expected people not to look.
So you may have to get used to peeing without privacy. Women wont have to worry, as the toilets even have buttons that play sounds so other people can’t even hear the noises you make.
However, blowing your nose is the opposite — you should turn away from other people before doing it. Traditionally it is impolite to touch your nose in public and people would go to the toilet to do that, though I haven’t seen anyone do that nowadays.
If you’re an Australian like me, you are used to not worrying if you’ve run out of cash, simply pulling out a piece of plastic and swiping or inserting to pay. However, despite Japan’s reputation for technological advancement, you’re going to get a rude shock, as supermarkets, smaller stores and public transport for the most part only accept cash. The exception to this are the RFID-based pre-paid cards for trains and shopping centres that can be used in some convenience stores and other shops, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. If you’re in the city and need to buy a ticket home but don’t have any cash, then it’s off to the bank ATM. Nothing in your account or it is past 8pm (and the ATMs are closed)? You’re walking home!
2014 Edit: Seven Eleven convenience stores now have ATMs that take both domestic and international cards, so this is not a problem, unless you live in Shikoku, which doesn’t have Seven Eleven stores (though I don’t know if other convenience stores have ATMs).
Decided to go shopping at a department store with your credit card? Beware that you may, if you use your card from back home, find that it is declined at the register (after they’ve swiped it) as many stores, such as Uniqlo, reject foreign cards. The major electronics stores are usually fine, but may require the assistant make a phone call, as sudden large purchases of electronic equipment on a card in a different country tends to be a red flag that suggestsfraud. I successfully notified my bank that I was living overseas and this issue went away, so consider doing this before leaving.
Speaking of supermarkets, they have the most awesome cash registers. Importantly though, you pack your own bags on the tables after the registers. D0n’t lick your fingers to make them sticky to open the bag, there’s a wet towel provided at the register for that, along with tape and in other types of stores, such as large “100 yen” chains, paper for wrapping breakables.
If you’re an Aussie used to the idea that plastic bags are evil and environmentally destructive, you’ll baulk at the huge number used here. This is less of an issue as rubbish that can be is incinerated in “clean” burners that don’t expel smoke or toxic chemicals. I’ll write about garbage in part 2.
Of course, in department stores and the like, they will neatly pack your purchases in a bag, then tape it neatly shut.
My local mall in Australia finally has an Asian-style bakery, so I can’t say that everyone will be unfamilar, but the way of buying bread here is different to the usual point-and-ask at the local Vietnamese owned place I was used to as a child.
When you enter most bakeries, you pick up a tray at the entrance, along with a pair of tongs, which you’ll use to put the items you want on the tray. Once you’ve got all you need, the counter attendant will wrap them in individual bags then put them in a larger carry bag.
If the bakery has a cafe attached, they might ask “mochi kaeri-masuka?” which means “Take home?”. Just reply “Yes, take out.” and they’ll understand you. If you want to eat in, just say “koko” which means “here” and point to the tables or the floor and they will put them on a plate. The same goes for coffee etc.
Like much in Japan, local busses work totally the opposite. You get on through the middle doors, take a ticket or swipe your RFID bus or train card (depending on company). When you get off, if you have a ticket, check the amount displayed below the number on the board that is shown on your ticket then, as you leave through the front doors, you drop the ticket and exact amount in coins into the perspex box next to the driver. If you only have notes, at any time beforehand, you can change a 1000-yen note or 500-yen coin using the slots at the front end of the payment box next to the driver.
Some busses or routes only have a flate-rate fare, eg: 100 yen.
For a good description with pictures, see this guide.
Possibly the two most useful things you can know about trains in Japan are: If you buy a too-cheap a ticket or don’t have enough money left on your train card, you can rectify this at “Fare Adjustment” or recharge machines just before the exit gates.
The second is, if you’re just visiting on a tourist visa, get a Japan rail pass. They allow almost unlimited travel on most trains, including the shinkansen bullet trains. Though they are expensive, travelling around Japan is considerably more so. The only bullet trains you can’t use are the very fastest services on the Tokaido and Kyushu lines, respectively the Nozomi and Mizuho.
Other than that, of the train/bus cards, the JR Suica card is the most widely recognised, working on most commuter train systems across the country, as well as in many convenience stores and some shops. Shinkansen bullet trains and express services require two tickets — one for the fair and the other for the seat, as there are different grades of seats. The double-tickets can be inserted together into the ticket gates (you wont break them) without a problem.
Slippers and shoes
Even if you haven’t been to any countries in Asia, you are likely well aware, either because you have friends from an Asian country or have read about Japan, that people don’t wear their shoes inside their homes. What you may not be aware of is that this applies to schools and many public buildings as well.
When visiting someone’s home, they’ll usually offer you a pair of slippers. Inside public buildings, such as schools and public halls, they will have slippers available for visitors. For the average guy from the USA, Australia or England, these slippers are going to be too small and horrendously uncomfortable. Quite a few guys I know who taught classes held in public halls simply walked around in their socks to avoid this. However, if you’re going to be here for a while, go to your local large supermarket, drug store or the like and grab yourself a pair of big, comfortable slippers to take around with you. Keep them stored in the plastic bag you bought them in (or something nicer — I’ll explain about this more later). I suggest not choosing the typical style with thicker heal, but have a good look at the types available as you can often find far more comfortable pairs than those.
If you’re going to be working in a school, you’ll notice the teachers wear running shoes or similar which they only wear inside. I suggest buying something similar as you’ll be going up and down stairs a lot.
Since you’re going to be taking your shoes of often, either get shoes that are easy to slip on and off, either without laces or, if running shoes or similar, get some elastic laces or a pair with a quick-lace system. It will be far less hassle.
Compared to the relative bare toilets I had in my house in Australia, the toilets inside Japanese homes are decorated better than my bedroom back in Australia was. Comfy toilet seat covers over heated seats with a washlet (bidet), thick mats on the floor, aroma bottles, pictures on the walls and cupboards perfectly sized to hold spare rolls.
This means, of course, even if you are a man with good aim, you don’t want to mess things up, so it’s best to sit down when going to pee, which you’ll do wearing the toilet slippers provided (and not the ones you were wearing inside the house). Just as you exchange your outdoor shoes for slippers indoors, likewise you exchange those slippers for toilet slippers in homes and public buildings, leaving your slippers outside the door. Admittedly, most people don’t bother with the toilet slippers in homes, but you definitely should in public buildings.
Once you’ve done your business in a public toilet and washed your hands, you may, very often, find no means has been provided to dry your hands — no towels or drier. The handkerchief, which the English use to blow their nose in, here in Japan is used to dry one’s hands after washing them. Handily (ha!) drug stores and other places sell hand towels for as little as 100 yen (equivalent to $1), so I suggest buying half-a-dozen and stuffing one in the pockets of each of your jackets, pants or bags as appropriate. They will also be very handy during the hot, humid summers for wiping away sweat.
100 yen stores
Back home, a $2 store would be full of rubbish I wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot barge pole. However, in Japan, the 100-yen stores (100 yen = about $1) are full of goodness and essential for stocking up on handy bits and pieces for your apartment (if you’re living here) or just to marvel at the quality of even the cheapest goods available in Japan.
The value of cleanliness
Much of the behaviour I’ve written about is because Japanese people especially value cleanliness and wont, unlike us Aussies, do things such as sit down in stairwells or in front of buildings (excepting school kids). You’ll also notice, if you pay attention, people wont put their bags down on the ground outside very often, nor carry around items such as their slippers un-bagged. In cafes and other shops, there is a shelf below tables and benches for people to put briefcases and bags. In cafes, restaurants and other places where you don’t take your shoes off before entering they have baskets next to tables to put bags in. If there is nowhere for people to put their bags, they’ll put them together on a chair or women will sit forward on the chair and put their bag behind them. On commuter trains, you’ll very often see people put their bags on the luggage rack above the seats or on their laps, rather than on the ground.
Clean your ears
Japanese mothers will clean the ears of their kids using special bamboo sticks to ensure that they are free of “ear stink” (what ear wax is known as, literally in Japanese). They also do this for their husbands. It is such a strong tradition that parlours have popped up in places where men can go and have their ears carefully cleaned by a woman in a traditional setting, invoking the nostalgia of having their mothers do it.
So, if you think it’s ok to dig around your ears with your fingers and then flick off the wax that comes out, think again if you’re coming to Japan. Get used to keeping your ears cleaned. However BE CAREFUL. Sticking anything in your ears risks damaging your eardrum.
The bath in Japan is not for washing yourself in. A single tub of bath water is usually shared by a whole family in one evening, so if you’re staying with a family, clean yourself very well before getting in! Usually, Japanese people will not use the shower, but sit down on a seat and tip the hot water from the bath over themselves using a small tub. Water costs a fortune here, so don’t leave the shower running while you wash, as that is horrendously wasteful.
Unlike the central hot water heaters in Australia, many Japanese apartments and homes have individual heaters for the kitchen and bathroom. They can be quite complex (the napoleon-style gas-heated bath system in my old apartment had 5 knobs and required instruction to use) so make sure you know how to use it before taking off your clothes. Newer houses have electronic systems which allow you to control the temperature down to the degree – separately for the bath and shower too. They often feed complex hot/cold mixing knobs just to add to the confusion.
A student of mine recently returned from Hawaii where she had a confusing experience at a restaurant. Having eaten a little, she didn’t understand why, afterwards, the waitress kept asking her if she had finished and wanted to take it away.
Having now lived here some years, I’d forgotten one of my early dining confusions that occurred at a family dinner. With a few different foods in front of me, I had first finished off my miso soup (a staple of the Japanese diet), which caused my mother-in-law to ask if I didn’t want to eat anything else.
The confusion in both cases is because table manners in Japan and Western countries are different. In a Western country, we eat one dish at a time, and at a formal dinner or restaurant, dishes are served one-by-one and the next dish isn’t served until everyone has finished the previous one.
However, in Japan, all dishes are served together and people will eat a moth up or two of one, then some of another and rotate through the foods as desired. It is even normal to let hot dishes go cold before eating them.
Contrasting too is the manner of eating. When I first went to a ramen bar in Tokyo, having been brought up with the idea that one eats silently, observing the man next to me slurping away at his noodles was a rude shock. It took me a long time to bring myself to do the same. Likewise, the first time I was served “summer” noodles, cold, with ice on top. Despite the great taste, eating them cold felt very wrong.
If you are used to saying Grace before your meal, Japanese people, the vast majority of whom are not Christian, say only a single word, “itadakimasu“. When you finish, you say “gochi-so-sama-deshi-ta“.
As I mentioned before with sweets, different towns and regions are all known for their own special foods or recipes. This is such a huge deal that one day, teaching a class, I got a bit of a shock. I asked the students what they did on the weekend and they replied that they’d driven to Sasebo, which is a couple of hours drive away. “What did you do at Sasebo?” I asked. “We had hamburgers.”. Yes, they had driven 2 hours just to have the local hamburgers. Crazy? Yes, for us. But not for them. Locals will always point out when the food being served is a local speciality.
I want to re-visit this topic, as the vast majority of local sweets contain anko, surrounded by mochi, which is red bean paste inside of sticky rice. The texture and taste of these can take a little getting used to. Senbe (crackers), on the other hand are often awesome and very tasty, even the cheap ones in the supermarket.
We are used to the idea that it’s polite to finish your drink, then refuse more. However, in Japan, it’s normal to be served tea, coffee or beer even if you don’t want any. If you attempt to politely finish your drink, it will immediately be refilled. The correct way to refuse more in Japan is to leave your drink full, as wasteful as that seems.
You’ll often be served green tea or other teas, unsweetened. Anything in a PET bottle in a vending machine with a yellow colour and green label is unsweetened tea as well. Those of us brought up on soft drinks who never drank tea will find it highly unpleasant, though it is far healthier. Get used to drinking it, though it’s polite enough to ignore it and not drink it (or just take a couple of sips and leave the rest) if you must.
If you are a soft-drink junkie, you’ll be interested to know that the familiar brands in Japan have less sugar than what they have at home. This I learned directly from an acquaintance who worked for Coca Cola and Pepsi.
Iced coffee is served black, with ice. Sweetening is done using small containers of sugar syrup and milk similarly with containers of concentrate.
Voicing your opinion.
I remember watching a Japanese variety show where the presenters (actually comedians, of whom a couple of dozen are on most variety shows in Japan) were watching how honey was made. I had seen this on TV in Australia as a child and am pretty sure most kids know how it is made, yet these Japanese adults were acting as if it were the most amazing thing they had ever seen in their lives.
The first time I had a Japanese girlfriend, I felt she was always very agreeable, never saying “no” anytime I asked if she wanted to go somewhere or do something, but later I found out she was unhappy. There are many stories of guys new to Japan asking a girl out only for her not to turn up to the date, leaving the guy confused and insulted.
These things illustrate the differences in how Japanese people express themselves. Allow me to use a chart to explain the reason simply.
|What was said||What a Westerner means||What a Japanese means|
|Yes, lets do it.||Yes, lets do it.||Yes, lets do it.|
|I’ll think about it.||I’ll think about it.||No.|
|No.||No.||No. (But they don’t say this.)|
To show enthusiasm, Japanese people will show it strongly, as, since they wont directly say “no” to anything, they show that by showing less than strong enthusiasm for something. So, if someone isn’t being so enthusiastic about your ideas here, it means they aren’t interested. Likewise, if someone strongly disagrees with you, they wont say, but will remain silent. At the end of the movie Rising Sun, there is scene where the murderer is outed and his bosses get out of their chairs and walk to the other side of the room. This is their way of showing their displeasure — literally distancing themselves from his actions. Compare this to the American way of loudly voicing one’s disagreement or displeasure.
Likewise, if you’re over here teaching English and a student has an issue with you, they wont confront you directly, but if you’re working in a school, you’ll find out after they have spoken to the Japanese staff, who will speak to the manager who in turn will speak to you. Similarly, if you practice martial arts in a Japanese school and breach protocol or manners (unintentionally) the instructor will ask a senior student to tell you in private that what you did was wrong rather than point it out in front of everyone.
As a person who is very straight-forward and no-BS, this was one of the hardest things I had to deal with, as I just couldn’t act in the same way.
Similarly, if a person screws up, even slightly, they’ll apologise profusely. You’ll see this on TV as well, when a company is caught doing something wrong or is responsible for someone’s suffering or death or a celebrity is arrested, the company president or celebrity will apologise profusely on TV.
Even in stores, people are so polite and considerate they will say “excuse me” if passing in front of you and interrupting your view of whatever product you are looking at. When you go back home, you’ll probably think that everyone is rude and unclean after spending any good amount of time here.
Japan can be very opposite what one is used to. It is full of its own contradictions (I haven’t gotten into people making a huge effort at going in circles but that I might address in another post). Handly, being a foreigner, they have low expectations of your manners and are happy to interact with you, most of the time. Learn as much Japanese as you can before coming here. It’ll help immensely.
If there is anything I should have included here, let me know. If you have any suggestions or questions, you can find me on Twitter under @Currawong. I hope to add some pictures later.