Tag Archives: customs

Japan “Do’s & Don’ts”

2 Apr

In tourist books, and especially online, there are many lists of Japanese manners “do’s and don’ts”.

Honestly, most of the things on those lists aren’t important! Some are only applicable in certain situations and others aren’t really important…even many Japanese don’t follow them.

For example, it’s commonly written on those “Japan do and don’t” list that have been compiled by non-Japanese:
– Do not put soy sauce on your rice
and – make slurping sounds when you’re eating noodles

In actuality, no one in Japan would care if foreign visitors put soy sauce on their rice, or ate their noodles silently.

Other common ones on those types of lists are:
– Don’t pour your own drink.
and – It’s insulting to leave a tip.

It’s true that if you go out with friends or co-workers and order beer in a large bottle or pitcher in Japan, you should pour for others and they will offer to pour yours. But…if your glass gets empty and your pour your own beer, it’s not “rude”.

And then, many of those books and websites often tell visitors to Japan that they must learn and follow some customs that even many Japanese people don’t bother with.
Such as how to clean your hands and mouth before enter a Japanese shrine.
Really, a lot of people (if not most) in Japan don’t even bother with that custom.

I’d say that if you come to Japan as a visitor, no one would expect you to know the myriad of customs and manners that are “common-sense” to people raised here (and become “common-sense” to those who have lived here a long time).

Here are the Japanese manners and customs that I’d say are the most important for visitors to know:

  • Don’t leave chopsticks directly into food, especially rice.

    Don’t do this! It’s shocking to Japanese people.

  • Don’t point with chopsticks (or with a fork, etc).
  • Don’t touch other people’s chopsticks (or fork) with your own.
  • Don’t pass food from one pair of chopsticks to another.
  • If there is a sauce for dipping food into, don’t dip a piece of food into it after you’ve taken a bite of it.
  • Don’t wear shoes indoors in a house…and many restaurants, clinics, schools, temples, etc.
    (It may be difficult for visitors to Japan to be sure where / when to remove their shoes or slippers. In general, if the floor has a step-up or a step-down, shoes must be taken off (or put on, when exiting). Also, no shoes or even slippers are worn on tatami flooring.)
  • When riding a escalator, people who want walk up or down the escalator go on the right-side*. If you just want to stand and ride the escalator, you should keep to the left-side*.
    (*In western Japan, they have this rule reversed. But, I’ve heard that they may change it to be the same as the Tokyo area, to reduce confusion.)
  • Don’t put your feet up on a table.
  • Don’t put anything that could be considered “unclean” or “unsanitary” on a table…such as shoes (even a pair that were just purchased).

I’ve lived in Japan for most of my life now. These “manners” have become common-sense to me. But, how do they seem to you? Confusing? Strange? Or are they similar to manners in your country?

Also…if you’re in Japan, or planning to visit, do you have any questions about Japanese customs or manners?

toshikoshi-soba

31 Dec

It’s now New Year’s Eve. New Year’s is Japan’s biggest holiday.
There are many customs and decorations in Japan at this time of year.

I’ll introduce one to you:
年越しそば (Toshikoshi-soba).

toshikoshisoba

Toshi-koshi-soba are noodles that are eaten on New Year’s Eve.

It is said to bring good luck for the coming year if the last thing you ate on New Year’s Eve was this dish.

よいお年を! (Have a happy new year!)

Culture differences between the U.S. and Japan

11 Oct

There are many cultural differences between Japan and America. Too many to list.

And, to tell the truth, although I was born and raised in America…I have spent just about my entire adult life in Japan—so I have become more used to Japanese culture than American.

What is considered “normal” behavior here in Japan just seems like the usual “common sense” way to act…and, honestly, sometimes the standard “normal” behavior in America seems unusual or “quirky”.

Most of the cultural differences that I’m thinking of aren’t real important…just the different ways of doing things in different countries and cultures.

For example…

– When people talk in America, they are usually quite direct and to the point. Often stating their opinion on a given subject quite brazenly.

But that’s generally impolite in Japan. Here, rather than directly stating an opinion—especially a conflicting one—a person’s feelings are usually expressed more indirectly.

In Japan, people are expected to be subtle and “read between the lines”.

Americans typically deal with facts and opinions. Those are important in Japan…but not as much as people’s feelings.
For example, an American person might be joining some Japanese friends for dinner. The plans were made to go to a certain restaurant that everyone likes. On the way there they pass another restaurant and the American might comment that he likes that other restaurant a lot.
The comment was meant as nothing but “small conversation”…but the Japanese people would quite likely change the plans and go to that other restaurant because the American (in the Japanese people’s minds) was strongly wishing to eat there.

Japanese people wouldn’t make such a comment…even in passing.

– When American people meet someone new, they can quickly call that person “a friend“…and the friendship can end just as abruptly.
It can take years before a Japanese person calls someone a “friend”…but once a friendship is made, it lasts a lifetime.

The above mentioned differences are just some things that make Japan and America unique. One way isn’t better or worse than the other. I live in Japan, so I’m used to the “Japanese way”…but if I still lived in America, I’d still be used to America’s culture, of course.

But here are some Japanese cultural traits that I think America could learn from:

Respect for others. At work, when called to the boss’s office, people in Japan will wait at the door until invited in…and certainly wouldn’t sit down until told to.
Similarly, when riding in car or taxi with superiors, people here will wait until told where to sit.

Also, Japanese people never wear shoes into a home or certain restaurants. And definitely wouldn’t put their feet or shoes (even brand new ones) on a table.

In addition, when Japanese people leave a restaurant, movie theater, ball park, etc., they clean up after themselves. They don’t leave a mess and expect others to clean up after them.

Another example…people in Japan aren’t judged by their jobs. No one “talks down to” another person because their job isn’t glamorous or well-paying.

Recycling. In Japan, recycling and caring about the environment has become important to many people. I haven’t lived in America for a while now, so I’m not sure—maybe this is similar in America.

Health care. In Japan, nearly everyone has either private or government health insurance. And health insurance here pays 70% of all medical or dental bills…including ambulance rides and pre-existing conditions.

Tipping. There is no tipping in Japan. And yet, the service in stores, restaurants, barber shops, hotels, taxis, etc. is said to be the best in the world.

Safety. Japan has one of the lowest crime rates in the industrialized world.

Punctuality. Everyone and everything is on time. TV and radio shows in Japan are scheduled to start at times such 6:54…and that’s exactly when it will start!
The trains and subways are also just as punctual.
People in Japan show up for work and meetings early. Very seldom, and usually with good reason, is someone ever late here.

Clean. This goes along with “respect”. Japan has very little litter or graffiti– even in major cities such as Tokyo. People here carry their garbage with them until they either find a public garbage can or they return home.

Those are some of the reasons that I love living in Japan. And I think that America and other countries could benefit from incorporating them into their cultures.

But there are also some parts of America’s culture that I think Japan could learn from:

Ambulances. In Japan, ambulances are government-owned and often take too long to bring patients to hospitals. There have been cases of people dieing in ambulances who could’ve probably been saved if they’d arrived at the hospital sooner.

Japanese 救急車 (ambulance)

In America, ambulance services are by private companies. The competition makes them all have fast response times.

School tuition. In Japan, high schools and colleges, even public ones, have expensive tuitions that must be paid by the parents. They are few student loans (which therefore are difficult to get) and no student financial grants.
American colleges have many more financial aid plans for students than in Japan.

Spring customs

13 Mar

I don’t remember most of the lesser known American holidays, so correct me if I’m wrong.
But, as I remember, in America there are some spring customs but no legal holidays.

First, February 2 is “Groundhog Day” in America.
A groundhog is a type of マーモット…

A groundhog.

Not to be confused with 「モルモット」, which means “guinea pig” in Japanese.

A guinea pig.

In America, on Groundhog Day people watch a groundhog to see if he leaves his burrow or not.
If he does, that’s supposed to mean that spring will start soon…if he returns to his burrow after sticking his head out, that means the cold winter weather will continue longer.

At least that’s how I remember it. It’s an odd custom.

April 1st is called “April Fool’s Day“.

On this day in America, people play practical jokes on each other…if someone falls for one of these practical jokes, then he’s labeled a “fool” for the day–the “April Fool“.

Also Easter, I believe, is on the first Sunday of April.
This is a religious Christian holiday.
Many people in America, Canada (and maybe some European countries too) paint Easter eggs and “the Easter Bunny” gives baskets of chocolate to children.

School students get a week or so “Spring Break” holiday from school…but it’s not the end of the school year yet (as it is in Japan). Summer Break is the end of the U.S. school year.

In Japan spring is different.
Here, the school year ends in March and begins after spring in April.
Students in Japan who will be starting high school or college must take Entrance Exams. (My second daughter passed her Entrance Exam and will be starting high school next month).

At almost the same time as Groundhog Day in the U.S., Japan has Setsubun on February 2nd every year.

In March, Japan has Doll Festival on March 3rd, and White Day on March 14th (tomorrow). But those aren’t legal holidays (I mean, they’re not days off).
But around March 20th is 「春分の日」 (Spring Equinox) is a legal holiday. This year, Spring Equinox is Sunday, March 21st…so it’ll will be observed the next day—Monday, March 22nd will be a day off.
Many people visit their family grave on this day.

A big holiday season in Japan occurs in spring. It’s called “Golden Week“.
Golden Week is technically May 3rd – May 5th (「憲法記念日」 (Constitution Day), 「緑の日」 (Greenery Day), and 「子供の日」 (Children’s Day) respectively)…but often 「昭和の日」 (Showa Day), which is on April 29th, is included.
So, some people get Golden Week holiday from April 29th – May 5th.

And, of course, a very important springtime custom in Japan is 「花見」 (Cherry-Blossom Viewing).

Recent news of Americans in Japan

10 Oct

First of all, today is the beginning of a three-day-weekend in Japan.
Monday is 「体育の日」 (Sports Day).

Until a few years ago, this holiday was on October 10th (today), and if that day fell on a Saturday (like it is this year), the day off would be “lost”. (If the 10th was a Sunday, it would be observed on the following day, though).

But now the holiday is the second Monday of October…so it’s always a three-day-weekend.
(Click here to read my short FAQ about this holiday).

Anyways, here are few recent Japan-related news items that involve Americans:

  • Japanese Prime Minister Hatoyama sent his congratulations to U.S. President Obama for receiving a Nobel Peace Prize, saying in part that he was pleased by Obama’s call for a nuclear-free world and that it must be difficult for the leader of the nation with the most nuclear weapons in the world to make such a statement.

    Japanese survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki also expressed their happiness by Obama’s plan to rid the world of nuclear arms and their support of his Nobel Prize.
    They also reiterated their invitation for him to visit their cities.

  • U.S. President Obama is scheduled to make his first official visit to Japan on (2009) November 12 – 13.
  • An American man was arrested for bringing a handgun into Japan on a flight from America.
    His gun was found by Japanese airport customs officers when he passed through customs at Narita Airport near Tokyo trying to transit to a flight to Thailand.

    It is unclear how he managed to get the gun through U.S. customs at the Dallas / Ft. Worth Airport, where he boarded the plane for Japan.

  • Another American man is in Japanese prison for attempting to kidnap his children from his Japanese ex-wife and bring them back to America.He divorced his Japanese wife in America and the U.S. courts gave him custody of their two young children.

    But his ex-wife (the children’s mother) took the kids to Japan on “holiday” and never returned. So there is an arrest-warrant for her in America…that can only be enforced if she steps foot on U.S. soil again (which is unlikely).
    The Japanese courts, though, granted her full-custody of the children and when their father came to Japan to take the kids back, he was arrested.

    This case shows one of the many differences between American and Japanese culture.
    In America, when parents divorce it is common for both parents to “share” custody.
    But that’s extremely uncommon in Japan. The divorce-rate is still very low in Japan…but it is climbing. And when parents divorce here it is felt that it’s in the children’s best interest to try to keep life as stable as possible by having the father (usually) simply move on and keep out of their lives.

Have you heard about any of these cases? What’s your opinion?