Part of the fun of going to new places (at least for me) is to understand the differences in cultural outlook, customs, and experience all the unique cultural quirks. I find that it provides me with a refreshing perspective on how to interpret life and helps me understand other people.
Getting use to the mannerisms in Asian countries, with Japan arguably being the one with the starkest difference, will be the most challenging for North American travellers. Blending in with the locals requires a very measured and calm response to everything around you. Although there are a lot of legal freedoms, cultural norms require people to demonstrate consistent restraint and respectfulness in matters of everyday life.
Here are some of the more prominent differences which surprise a lot of people on their first (and subsequent) trips to Japan:
Tipping – Tipping is not common in a lot of Asian countries and there is a strong no tipping culture in Japan. If you tip, the staff will literally chase you down the street to return the money you forgot on the table.
Slurping Noodles – If you were always hit as a child for slurping or making noises when you eat, you will love Japan. Slurping your noodles is encouraged as it allows you to aerate the broth and increase the flavour of the noodle. If everyone around you is slurping away, just join them!
Drinking in Public – Yes, you can drink in public. It is acceptable on trains, in parks, and just hanging out on street corners. The police will not hassle you unless you’re causing trouble for other people.
Personal Space – Personal space is a very important factor in making people feel comfortable in Japan. You do not invade other people’s personal space unless you know them very well. This mean no hugging, no touching people’s shoulders, no slaps on the butt. You’ll get a weird reaction, if not a freak out, from most Japanese if you move in for the European cheek kiss.
Public Displays of Affection – You may see the occasional couple hold hands in public, but PDA is generally considered embarrassing. Making out in broad daylight will attract a lot of unwanted attention.
Snacking on the Road – You will almost never see someone walking down the street and eating a sandwich while drinking a beer. I’m not sure why, but everyone will always find a park, a nearby bench, or even just stand in a out of the way corner before breaking out the snacks and drinks.
The Passing Lane – There’s always unspoken rules in Japan. There’s even a protocol for going up escalators, and it differs depending on which part of the country as well. In Tokyo, people standing on the escalator will stand on the left side and leave the right side for people walking up the escalator. Osaka people, and in most other parts of the country, people stand on the right stand and walk up the left side.
Getting Rejected – Getting an outright “no” in Japan is rare. Everyone is excessively polite, so you’ll usually get rejected in a round about way. For example, if you ask someone to sell you something you can’t have you may get an, “maybe” or a “I’ll think about it”. Or someone at the club you’ve failed at picking up will tell you “I’m sorry”. You can take a nebulous answer as a rejection to your request.
Being Drunk – most things are forgiven when you’re drunk. Occasional outbursts are tolerated, even funny, however it is expected that you stay in control. I’ve seen a drunk Japanese guy try to fight the cops in the foyer of an izakaya, and the cops seemed more annoyed and concerned with his drunk ass falling down all the time. It was funny… for us. They have been a bit harder on foreigners behaving badly in the last number of years, so please stay respectful when drinking.
Saying Goodbye – You bow, they bow, you bow back, they bow back, and it turns into an endless cycle. Just do it twice while backing away without turning around, and then turn around and head off otherwise you’ll spend endless minutes being polite to each other.
Gaijin Smash – If you’ve never heard this term, it was coined in the 2000’s by an American English teacher blogging his experiences in Japan. He found that as a foreigner, you can override many of the expectations and norms, and in many cases, the locals will not want to deal with you and let you do what you want (within reason). You may be told that you can’t do something, like use a certain bathroom, but if you persist, or just do it, you’ll generally be ignored. This is the Gaijin Smash. However, with great power comes great responsibility, and you shouldn’t use it constantly, otherwise you’ll just be branded as another rude foreigner. There have been instances where foreigners have been arrested for excessive gaijin smash uses, so use it only in required situations.
Stealth Gaijin – For my fellow Asian travellers in Japan, especially the stylishly dressed ones, you might be able to blend in with the local Japanese, at least for a few seconds or minutes during your initial interaction with people. If they can’t immediately tell you’re a tourist from your clothing style (as the Japanese are very stylish and will dress properly to just go grocery shopping), many people will automatically assume you’re Japanese and be expected to speak and act as a native Japanese. Your stealth cloak goes away once you’ve been exposed, but it’s nice to play with it while you have the chance.
LBGTQ – There is a growing LBGTQ movement in Japan, but it is still underground. It is rare to see overt LBGTQ couples in public, and it may not be received well, especially when interacting with the older generations. As foreigners will generally be held to different standards, LBGTQ travel is safe and there is usually no denial of service if there are no excessive PDAs or trips to places like love hotels.
No Access – As a foreigner, you may be denied access to some places, mostly seedy clubs run by the organized crime groups (because they have no leverage over you), host clubs, snack bars, bath houses, or specific restaurant and bars which are very high class and closed off to all but the highest of society. No amount of gaijin smashing will work in this case. Just move on and find you a place that is more foreigner friendly.
Tattoos – Like in many places in Asia, tattoos are very much taboo in Japan. I’ve had friends go to Japan to teach English with what we would classify as tame, non-descript tattoos, and they’ve been told to cover them up at school and in other public places. Please accept that these requests are common, and you may not be able to go to some hot springs, pools, bath houses, or other locations if you have tattoos showing. There was recently a push from the government to ease access to places for foreigners with tattoos, but not all places have relaxed their policies.
The Funny Dialect – If you spend a lot of time in Kansai, especially around Osaka, you will notice a lot of words and phrases differ from Tokyo or “standard” Japanese. There’s more up and down inflection in the Osaka dialect, they sometimes use different conjugations suffixes and for negatives (-hen instead of -nai), as well as region specific terms like “mecha” instead of “cho”, and “chau” instead of “chigau”. The regional dialect, Kansai-ben, is considered the more relaxed, funnier dialect. If you watch a lot of comedians, they’ll tend to use a lot of Kansai-ben as part of their acts. Other regions will have their own specific quirks as well.
Smoking – Great strides have been made in Japan over the last decade to get people to stop smoking for the obvious heath reasons. However, smoking is still very common and cigarette shops and machines are still a normal fixture. If second-hand smoke bothers you, just be aware that you might not be able to get away from it entirely in bars and public spaces.
Have you noticed any idiosyncrasies during your travels to Japan? Let me know by posting below or by using the Contact page.