Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Things that are OK in the U.S. but unacceptable in Japan

What is the proper way to eat street food (here grilled squid--yum!) in Japan?

Somewhat a mirror-image of this previous post, here are some things you can do without second thought in my home country, that range from awkward “ugly American” to taboo in Japan. Some of these I didn’t do all that often in the U.S. anyway, but others still annoy me. Oh well, when in Rome!

1. Discuss politics or social problems
In my experience, the times and places to discuss politics are fewer in Japan. It’s not kosher to loudly give your (negative or condescending) opinion while sitting in a café, for example. It’s odd, coming from America where everyone has an opinion, but few Japanese are interested in debate or sharing their views on topics that might cause disagreement. From the day we met my husband always bucked this trend and we talk politics all the time!

2. Whistle or sing in public
I can’t think of many times that I did this back home anyway, but it’s just not done in Japan, unless you are drunk, and even then whistling is just a no, especially for women.

3. Eat and walk at the same time
You won’t see people eating ice-cream cones and walking down the street in summer. Sometimes I want to…just get a 100-yen ice-cream from the convenience store and eat it on the way home on those hot summer days…but it’s rude here. You won’t even see many people carrying cups of coffee. They put it in a bag until they get to their home/workplace or whatever and drink it there. Even during events that serve food outside (like summer festivals) most people hang around the stall they bought the food from until they've finished. It’s best to not be a rebel about this because there are few public trash cans in Japan, so the stall that sold you the food is the only place to throw away the cup/plate/wrapper etc. when you’re done.

4. Hold doors for people
It used to be the mark of a gentleman, but now I think it’s become common courtesy both sexes do in America. If you do it in Japan you can expect it to be an event: the person you held the door for will bow and apologize, perhaps more than once. The Japanese have a trending word these days “omotenashi” which means “hospitality” but it doesn't really extend to lending strangers a helping hand. In Japanese culture, every action is accompanied by an equal and opposite reaction: if someone does something for you, you are duty-bound to do something in return, “ongaeshi.". But if you help a stranger, you create an awkward situation for that person because they won’t be able to repay you in kind. So Japanese often just ignore someone who could use a hand…the person struggling might appreciate help but they’d also be embarrassed if you made a big deal about helping them.

5. Greet friends by yelling across the street
This is a regional thing in America too but raised voices in public (even happy voices) are frowned upon here. I see many tourists, backpackers, and travelers in our area in Kyoto, and if a group is talking loudly enough that I can hear them from across the street, sure enough, they’re always American.

6. Ask for money (homeless)
There are plenty of homeless people in Japan, but you will never see them with signs asking for jobs, food, or money, perhaps due to #4. I don’t think many passerby would offer change anyway. The Japanese way is to do things officially and donate to a charity, leaving it to an organization rather than private individual actions to take care of the poor. Only one time an old lady asked me for money "for a taxi home", I gave it to her, Yuya said I shouldn't have because she probably just spent it on pachinko (gambling machines), but oh well.

7. Show lots of skin
This goes for men and women. Even at the beach both sexes cover up. I think it is due to a combination of modesty (which in Japan doesn't mean Victorian morals; it means refraining from showing too much self-confidence) and Asian beauty trends in which white skin is more desirable than tanned skin.

8. Play loud music/musical instruments in your home
There are bad neighbors to be found in any country, but in my experience neighborhoods in Japan really are quiet! To keep houses from being eaten by mold in the humid summer, walls are built very thin and “breathable” with little to no insulation…this means in some homes and apartments you can hear your neighbor washing dishes, watching TV, having an argument, or even getting it on (awkward). Most people make efforts to keep the noise level down at home, out of consideration for others and also to protect their own privacy. With this in mind we searched until we found an apartment building made out of concrete, so there are thick (nearly) sound-proof walls between us and our neighbors. Yay!

9. Go out in pajamas/no makeup/frumpy clothes
Granted it’s not in good taste to go out in your PJs in the U.S. either, but the pressure to look good in public is much more intense here, especially for women. Most would never dream of going out without hair and make-up done. Think 1950s in America. It's sometimes an annoying social pressure, but I've found you don't need to spend a lot of money or have great taste to blend in better: as long as you wear layers (never just one top or Tshirt) and clean, unwrinkled/undamaged clothes that fit you properly, you'll pass.

10. Except to leave work on time
I remember using an American English textbook put out by a Japanese publisher. On a chapter about work-related phrases and vocab, there were two illustrations: one for "work overtime" and one for "leave work early". The clock in the overtime illustration pointed to 11pm and there was a moon and stars outside the office window. The clock in the "leave early" picture showed 6pm and the worker with sheepish face going out with many others still at their desks.
There was no vocabulary for "on time". 
I was shocked! Leaving at 6pm is not "early"! It's on time! "Early" should show the worker sheepishly ducking out at 3 or 4pm.
I was fascinated by the use of English to fit Japanese lifestyles, with absolutely no importation of American culture in the textbook, but that's fodder for another post.
There are many different reasons the Japanese put in so much paid or unpaid overtime. One possible reason is Japanese people despise idleness, so those who aren’t at work, who sigh for the weekend, or talk too much about after-work plans are seen as childish. Another reason may be the way to get promoted at work is to make as many people as possible to think well of you, so folks want to stay late to improve their image. A third reason is in a hierarchical Japanese company it’s not good to have the audacity to leave work before your boss does…so if your boss is sucking up to an even bigger boss by staying and working until the last train 11:30pm, all the underlings must as well. Another reason is many companies hire for life: they intend to keep you until retirement. The system offers some great benefits, but since they’re reluctant to let people go even when business is bad, they hire only the barest minimum needed to get the work done, and don’t often hire temporary folks when business is good. So if orders are pouring in, 3 people may have to do the work of 10 for a season, or for years.
At my workplace, I’m usually given the “gaijin-card” and leave work soon after the time stated in my contract. I'm glad, because ain't nobody got time to volunteer at work, is my thinking! 

11. Wear shoes in the house/put your feet on things
Feet and shoes are really dirty in Japan. They stay off in the house, and putting your feet on anything other than the floor is frowned upon. I know my Japanese co-workers wince every time I use my foot to move something/shut a cabinet door, so I try not to do it.

12. Blow your nose in public
The Japanese think this is really gross. Especially when you put the used tissue back in your purse or pocket. It's more socially acceptable to "snuffle up" until you can get to a bathroom. Spring allergies make my nose run like fountains so I have to blow my nose anyway...I try to be as discreet as possible.

13. PDA
Sometimes you can see young people holding hands, but you’ll rarely see anything else! Kissing is definitely a no-no! Friends also do not hug when meeting or parting. I realized that in America a lot of Christian couples in church put their arms around each other/give back rubs during the service. Japanese Christian couples sit with at least a person-width of daylight in between, or even in different pews, and never touch each other in public. If my husband and I sat like that in an American church people might think we’ve been fighting or something! I don’t mind this because I’m not a touchy-feely person by any means, and am private about tender moments. It does mean however that even touchy greetings are rare: if we meet up at a station for example, I have to wait for my welcome-back kiss and hug until we get home!

So there we go, some observations on do's and dont's in Japan. If it seems constricting, it is sometimes! But there is oddly enough freedom here in other ways, as in my companion post Things that are OK in Japan but unacceptable in the U.S. 


  1. Most of those sound like a good idea to me, though I'd be hard-pressed to not state opinions publicly or want my husband to come home from work at a decent time. But the quietness, cleanliness, and modesty sound rather appealing to me!

    1. There are benefits when the majority cooperates!

  2. This was fascinating. I live in a section of Los Angeles with a large Japanese subculture -- Daiso just arrived, but Marukai has been here for a while -- and I play volleyball with some amazing Japanese women, but I didn't know half of this. Thanks for posting!

    1. Glad you enjoyed! Interacting with other cultures is the spice of life^^

  3. Number 4 has happened to me too many times where I got a door slammed in my face. Number 9 I don't know, recently there's been a weird sweatpants trend with young guys in Tokyo. And number 13 is true except when a couple breaks up in the train station and are just holding each other haha.

    1. Yes doors in the face! I still hold dots if the person is right behind me. It's funny here, the sweatpants trend seems to be what the really old gents go for. Also crocs.

  4. Our neighbor downstairs (young Japanese guy) violates nr 8 constantly and it drives me batty. I don't mind people making noiseーtalking, singing, TV, music whatever... but when it's *constant* and from midnight to the early morning, it's unbearable. The biggest problem is he wears headphones when he sings so he *thinks* he's being considerate and quite, but...nope! XD

    1. Oh no! That's too bad>< he must be too poor to go to karaoke :P


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