One of the biggest mistakes Westerners make when visiting foreign countries is to neglect learning about the key elements that differ in culture, and no differences are so glaring then those in Japan. The Japanese are a proud people, steeped in tradition and culture, and it’s important to get a grasp on those customs most cherished by Japanese society, especially if you wish to experience your visit in a positive way. Not to mention leave a positive memory to the people you came into contact with along the way. Here are the 10 customs you must know about before hopping on that plane and making your way to the incredible country of Japan.
Greetings and Showing Respect.
Usually the people of Japan will hold a much lower standard for tourists when it comes to the correct way of greeting a local. Bowing your head or giving a slight bend at the waist is usually plenty to show that you respect them, which is a crucial factor of Japanese culture.
You should also be careful to use the proper titles when speaking to anyone you come into contact with. “Mr” or “Mrs.” won’t suffice here. Instead, adding the title ‘san’ or ‘sama’ to the end of the name is considered appropriate. When addressing children, no title is usually needed, but you can use the term ‘chan’ when addressing young girls, or ‘kun’ for young boys, which is usually keyed more as a note of affection then of status. Meal Etiquette.
There are quite a few standards to follow when eating a meal in Japan, and it’s never the casual affair it is in the West.
First of all, you will be given a hot, wet towel at most restaurants, and occasionally in people’s homes as well. Never use these to clean your face, or any other part of your body besides your hands. Just wipe your hands gently prior to eating, and set it aside.
When the drinks are brought out, don’t sip it until after everyone has been served, and someone has made a small speech.
Just before you begin eating, always take a moment to say “itadakimasu”, which means “I will now receive”.
It’s considered polite to hold bowels up to your face, rather then drop food down to the table, so feel free to lift smaller bowls up to your mouth when you dig in. Also, noisy eating (within reason) is encouraged, especially with food like noodles, where it is difficult not to slurp.
I know that in the West it’s considered a high crime not to leave a good sized tip wherever you sit down to eat, but this is not the case in Japan. It’s considered offensive, and if you think about it from their point of view, it’s not that hard to see why. Think of it as throwing money around, showing your wealth. Would you walk into a fast food place and throw down $20 for a burger when it costs $0.99? They see it in much the same way. And this also goes for any other service you could possible conceive of. Using Chopsticks.
Not everywhere in Japan uses chopsticks for their utensils, which may surprise you, but enough do that you will want to learn before going. Don’t worry, it isn’t difficult, and once you have eaten once or twice with these little wooden skewers you’ll be able to do it in your sleep.
Not only will learning to use chopsticks just be easier for you once you get to Japan, but it’s worth it for the looks of shock you’ll get from the locals who are convinced foreigners can’t pick up on such subtle facets of Japanese society. Entering the Home.
I am sure that most are aware of the Japanese custom of taking off your shoes before entering a home, but did you know that you should also do this in any other building that offers some kind of shoe rack? A lot of places ask for you to strip off your dirty shoes before going any further, so take care of those feet! It’s not considered very polite to expose the rest of the guests to bad foot odor, after all.
You will also want to pay close attention to the slipper protocol. For instance, you might want to bring a small pair with you before going into someone’s home, although many will have guest slippers available for you. There are also bathroom slippers, which should only be used in the bathroom, never in the main areas of the house, and it’s considered disgusting to do so. Think of it as carrying a toilet brush out with you into the living room. Medical Masks.
Seeing people walking around in medical masks is very common, even though there is no current threat of an epidemic. Many tourists become nervous when they see this, but there is no reason to worry. Rather then to ward off the frightening diseases that have long since passed the region (like the SARS scare a few years ago), masks are worn to isolate germs for minor illnesses, to minimize the risk of passing on colds, flus, and other small things to the other people around them. It’s especially common to see in office buildings, or anywhere that several people work together, and one person may be feeling a little under the weather.
This is one of the little considerate gestures I love about Japan, especially as I have plenty of experience on buses, trains, in offices, or waiting in line, where a random stranger will feel the need to use me as some kind of germ-block as he coughs violently onto my shoulder.
There is one thing that is very important in Japanese society: conformity. Individuality is considered a threat to the social norm that is held so dear in Japan, and so not drawing attention to yourself is key. Don’t speak too loudly, don’t eat while on your way somewhere, don’t start coughing and sniffling loudly on a train, just try to be as unassuming as possible. This is especially good advice because you are going to stick out anyway, so you will want to do all you can you minimize that, since the almost celebrity status of foreigners can be a little awkward, especially if you tend to be more on the shy side. From photos with strangers, to people calling to you from across the street, you will know people are looking at you, so you may find yourself trying to sink into the collar of your coat anyway. Public Bathing.
I don’t mean stripping off and diving into a fountain. Japan is full of public bath houses, most separated by gender, and most homes have a communal bath outdoors as well. These are never for getting clean, rather they are to be used after you have cleaned in another area to relax, like a jacuzzi. Always make sure you have scrubbed and rinsed well before you pop into one of these babies. Dirtying the water is beyond impolite, it’s just plain rude, as it shows you are not considering the sacred implications of the bath, or the comfort of those who will come after you.
Speaking English vs. Japanese.
It’s wonderful to know Japanese before your visit, as it is wonderful to know the native language of any country you end up in. However, chances are most of the locals will immediately assume you come from a place that speaks English as it’s main language, and they love to show you their own proficiency with the tongue, even if they barely know it. In the end, most will choose to use English rather then Japanese, and it’s best to go with it. After all, they are showing you hospitality by speaking your native (or they assume your native) tongue. What could be more flattering? The Importance Of Safety.
The crime rate in Japan is extremely low, especially compared with other countries, and if your coming from the US or UK, shockingly so. From young children being allowed to run around unattended, to people sleeping in parks when they miss their train, to people just leaving things unattended or walking through the city late at night, it’s refreshing to see that amount of trust in a nation.
But don’t be fooled, the Japanese are very, very, very safety conscious, and have a serious concern and fear over crime, which is probably why the rate is so low. Just be aware that bad things to happen, so don’t get too cocky or over confident. Use the same vigilance you would anywhere else.
And there you have it, the ten things you have to know before visiting Japan. These are all extremely important customs, and violating them could be considered quite offensive, so always be aware of your actions, and willing to blend in with the society. If you are considerate, willing to learn, and friendly, you should get along just fine. So good luck, and enjoy Japan!