A little culture shock is to be expected when you decide to live abroad. After all, if you’re from the UK it can a while to get used to, say, the afternoon siestas of Spain or life inside one of the gated communities found in the USA. But you’d have to go far to find somewhere as truly different as Japan, which has some fundamentally different aspects to everyday life according to those who have moved there.
Truth be told, things may seem a somewhat overwhelming to newcomers, but getting used to them is far from an insurmountable challenge. The key is to do a little preparation and research before you encounter said cultural differences, and – luckily – we’re here to help you identify and learn how to approach some of the biggest.
Don’t worry though; even if you still struggle to get the local customs right, Japanese natives are very polite and helpful and will save your blushes. In fact, that leads us nicely onto our first point…
This is the big one, and it can definitely trip up people who are new to Japan. If you ever panic and think you’re getting it all wrong, the main thing to remember is that Japanese natives are typically very polite, patient, and helpful and they don’t expect you to know everything about their culture as soon as you step off the plane. While it’s genuinely important to try and learn Japan’s cultural norms and customs, getting them wrong from time to time won’t be the end of the world.
The easiest way to remember Japan’s rules on manners is: be respectful of others in public. Things like avoiding being noisy, not blocking walkways or elevators, not eating or drinking while walking, not talking loudly on public transport and so on, quickly become second nature when you don’t see anyone else around you doing those things.
Still, there are more specific unspoken rules that are worth trying to remember. For example, when eating you must always leave chopsticks and cutlery next to each other on the chopstick rest, or on the side of your bowl or plate. It’s actually considered rude to cross your chopsticks or leave them facing into your bowl. Speaking of food manners, don’t take food directly from someone else’s chopsticks, and if someone else has their chopsticks in a communal food plate, wait for them to finish before moving yours in.
Restaurant staff are extremely helpful and polite and will go out of your way to ensure you’re well catered for, despite the potential language barrier. If you want to be nice back, however, be aware that tips just aren’t a thing in Japan and will be awkwardly refused if you offer them. If you try to insist, it is more likely to be seen as rude than welcome. Don’t worry, restaurant staff are paid fair wages without relying on tips, so a simple arigato (thank you) will suffice!
When you need to communicate, don’t let the language barrier freak you out either. The word sumimasen is an extremely useful one to know and it essentially means ‘excuse me’ and is used in the same way you would at home. You can say it after making simple mistakes, or when trying to attract someone’s attention. You can even say it when you want people to move out of the way on a packed train. If you’re new to Japan, this phrase will be your best friend.
Lastly, bowing is a big part of Japanese culture and comes with a plethora of cultural rules, but most natives won’t expect foreigners to get into the nitty gritty of bowing etiquette. When making an apology or saying thank you, a simple nod of the head will still be considered polite enough.
English isn’t widely spoken, but many things are made clear and easy enough for even tourists – so expats will quickly get the hang of it too with just some basic Japanese. But you don’t always need to be able to understand written signs to figure out the rules, just use observation and common sense. For example, if you see slippers left outside a room with tatami flooring, it’s easy to assume that means it’s rude to wear slippers on tatami floors. And yes the side of the escalators you stand on is different in some cities, but it’s easy enough to simply follow everyone else.
Something newcomers to Japan will notice almost immediately is that little jingles and tunes are to be heard everywhere. It’s not just your imagination: every train station has its own short theme tune or song that will play when the train stops there. Many other forms of public transport have jingles too, including buses and taxis.
It doesn’t end there though. The more time you spend in your new home, the more you’ll notice it in places you never would have expected while living in the west. Pedestrian crossings chirp like birds to a rhythm, convenience stores have their own theme songs, washing machines play little tunes when they finish a wash. Even some toilets have jingles!
The jingles aren’t just jingles though; the people behind these melodies and rhythms believe they help people to get moving – a kind of subconscious psychological reminder.
In order to keep things, not just trains, organised and flowing, these tunes make people aware that it’s time to take action. The compositions are typically comforting so people don’t feel alarmed, and last long enough so people have time to get moving before it ends. In the case of trains, people familiar with the tunes will also recognise the stop they’re at without looking away from their phone or book.
Japan is very convenient. Extremely convenient, even. It may feel a little overwhelming at first but you’ll soon be taking it for granted, as much of the convenience you encounter is actually born of necessity. The reason things are so convenient has to do with how people get around and how they work.
Looking at the first of these, public transport is clean, affordable and country-wide, and most people in Japan rely on it for commuting. It’s not that people never drive cars – they do – it’s more that from a young age, children will commute to school on the train or bus while their parents go to work, and continue to rely heavily on public transport into adulthood.
While public transport takes on a new level of ease and comfort in Japan, convenience stores in particular really come into their own. Cold food? Check. Cheap hot food? Check. Public toilets, a wide selection of hot drinks, as well as a seating area, microwaves, kettles and sometimes other amenities? They’ve got it all. Most convenience stores will also sell umbrellas and face-masks, and they’re both things that most Japanese citizens will use with great regularity.
In fact, convenience stores are almost everywhere – you’ll never be too far from a 7Eleven, FamilyMart, Lawson, or other convenience store chain.
As with public transport, the convenience of these stores comes down to necessity. It’s common for commuters to not have time for breakfast or dinner due to Japan’s rigorous work culture, so a quick stop off at one of these can be a must. It’s a good thing that FamilyMart’s fried chicken really is surprisingly good then …
It’s also one of the reasons that street-food continues to thrive in Japan. Some of Japan’s most famous cultural delicacies, like takoyaki, taiyaki and of course instant noodles, are convenient and easy to pick up and eat in a rush (but not while you are walking …).
That’s not to mention the vending machines, because those are also a huge thing. Machines with a large variety of hot and cold drinks are easy to find on almost every street, especially in the big cities. Depending on where you look there are vending machines that seem to sell almost everything; including sushi, cakes, toys, and even limited edition souvenirs!
Everything’s just a little more high-tech in Japan. Automatic taxi doors, animated billboards galore, multi-functional public toilets, robots help you find your way on the metro … in fact you may even get so used to them that you be surprised when, say a toilet seat doesn’t play a tune, or a door refuses to open automatically for you. If this starts to happen, you know you’re halfway to adapting to Japanese culture.
It’s easy to fall victim to the assumption that just because you’ve got used to some of a culture’s differences, you’ve successfully defeated culture shock. This isn’t always the case though, as that’s a standard part of the ‘honeymoon phase’ – the period of your life in Japan where you still feel a little like a tourist.
Eventually, you may or may not be hit with the realisation that these cultural differences won’t ever be going away – they’ve become part of your life. This can be more frustrating for some than others, but making peace with cultural differences is the core of overcoming cultural shocks and adjusting to a new life.
It can take months, it can take years, but eventually you’ll be able to comfortably navigate the new culture. You may even find yourself so used to life in Japan that you experience ‘reverse culture shock’ when you return to your home country! I know I’ll never take trains always being on time for granted ever again…
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