Monday, April 27, 2015

12 Japanese Customs I Want to Adopt

One of the things I enjoy about living in Japan is seeing how people here do life. Seeing lifestyles that are new to me I feel gives me more creativity and a broader view about our own lives, and allows us to examine "why" we do this or that in our respective countries.

In our marriage, we have two very different cultural backgrounds going on, with all their traditions and different definitions of "common sense" when it comes to daily life. We can decide which customs we'd like to follow--or not--in our family.

There is a lot in Japanese culture I don't necessarily want to be a part of. I can understand why they make sense from a Japanese point of view, and why the American in me dislikes them, but there are also many parts of Japanese culture I LOVE and will be happy to perpetuate in my family. Here are some of them:

1. No shoes on in the house
This is not necessarily a uniquely Japanese thing, because growing up my American family had the same rule! With 8 kids traipsing in and out of doors all day in muddy Washington state, it just made sense to keep shoes out of the house. I had no problem adjusting to this custom here.

2. Drinking lots of tea
I have never been a soft-drinks kinda gal and I don't miss them at all in Japan. No Coke, no Mountain Dew, no problem! We drink iced barley tea all summer and hot green tea all the rest of the year. No added sugar or anything...though I prefer a glass of water when I'm really thirsty, my husband can slake his thirst with tea alone. My little students as well are always bringing bottles of tea to class. I can't imagine little American 4-year-olds being content with unsweetened green tea, but I love it! I think the health benefits are great.

3. Dressing nicely in public
This is also a source of insecurity for me, because I'm not so good at fashion yet. But I'm trying, because I hate feeling like the frumpiest in the room! Makeup, heels, skirts, floral prints, feminine jewelry, are all very common here. It's kind of like stepping back in time to the 1950s in America, when men and women cared more about how they looked, and many women especially wanted to look as feminine as possible. Here's a post about that. It's not always practical and you can get too materialistic if you're not careful, but I enjoy it--and the smiles on my husband's face when I look good!

4. Being on time
So, "on time" in Japan means showing up 10 minutes early. The trains run like clockwork here so there's not many excuses you can make for being late. Japanese are very strict about time, and can't respect anyone who is chronically late--however this only applies to the starting of working time, meetings, and events. The Japanese are not as strict about finishing on time really, hence meetings that can drag on forever. But I think being on time is professional and conveys respect. There are too many times I fall short but time management is a good habit I want to improve.

5. Air-drying clothes
For some reason few Japanese people own dryers, and almost everyone dries their clothes on a line or rack outside. It doesn't always make neighborhoods look attractive, and you're at the mercy of the weather, but the clothes smell so good after drying outside and they stay looking nice a lot longer too. My 3-year-old jeans are still crisp and my sweaters don't pill. Also, smaller electric bill and better for the environment, yay!

6. Thankfulness for food 
I noticed this working in a kids' English school. For all-day events, they bring little bento lunch boxes their moms make. Even though their moms aren't present, they eat ALL the food in the lunch box without complaining. There's usually a lot of veggies too like broccoli, edamame, seaweed, cucumbers and mini tomatoes. I've never seen a Japanese kid complain about or refuse to eat food set in front of them. And they're taught to not leave anything! I recently heard this is drilled into them at school and is not necessarily the parents' policy. Oh well, if the kids do make a fuss about food at home, at least they all know it's verboten to utter complaints in a school setting. Anyway, I want to take a cue from Japanese culture here and teach my kids the same.

7. Baths instead of showers
Why take a shower when you can relax in a deep bath?

8. Eating in season
There is this funny phrase the Japanese tourist industry uses: "Japan has four seaons." This post about seasons goes into more detail. Japanese love their seasons, though in the cities it's reduced to fake cherry blossoms decorating the supermarket to remind folks it's spring, still it's fun to enjoy seasonal produce: strawberries, daikon, sweet potatoes, and mackerel in fall/winter; melons and tomatoes in the summer, etc. I think it's a healthy habit to be aware of what is in season and try to buy locally.

9. Coming of Age Day
The age of majority in Japan is 20, and every year in January the young people who turned 20 the previous year get dressed up, do a photo shoot (think senior pictures) and attend a ceremony in their city. Most guys wear suits now but the girls get to wear gorgeous furisode (long-sleeved) kimono and get their hair done, the whole nine yards...and THEN go to the bar and enjoy legal drinking for the first time. I love kimono and dress-up so I would have loved it as a 20-year-old...I think it's a great custom and at least at the beginning of the day a little more classy than America's 21st birthday shenanigans, because you spend the day with family and have a formal ceremony.

10. Kotatsu
A kotatsu is a low table with a heating element under it. A special blanket is sandwiched between the heater and the table top, and voila!You have a magical table/blanket tent of heavenly warmth to live in for the next 3 chilly winter months. Since most homes in this area of Japan don't have central heating and are built without insulation so the place doesn't mold up in the muggy summers, a kotatsu is a life-saver. I'm sitting in mine as I type this. If we move to America we will have to bring our kotatsu with us!

11. Sleeping on futon
Traditionally, Japanese sleep on a thick pad (futon) laid on the tatami mat floor. As an exchange student and when living by myself in Japan, I had always had a bed, and it wasn't until we got married and decided on an apartment with tatami flooring that I started the futon lifestyle. At first sleeping on the floor felt like camping but now I love it, and springy mattresses make me feel sea-sick! I relax and sleep better when on the floor, and I've heard it's better for one's back and spine.

Size comparison: chopsticks for eating vs. for cooking

12. Using chopsticks
Of course the Japanese use forks and spoons for things like Western pasta dishes, cakes, and some stir-fry dishes when the sauce makes the rice too slick to eat with chopsticks. For almost everything else, chopsticks are used. I love using chopsticks for dishes like salad. It's so much easier to pick up things and eat politely: no more stabbing squirmy veggies or crushing croutons with a big unwieldy fork.  It's also easier to eat soup with chopsticks. You alternate between picking out solids with the chopsticks and lifting the bowl to your mouth to sip the broth. No more awkward dribbly spoon problems. I also like cooking with chopsticks; I use big long ones and they do the job of a stirring spoon, a spatula, a whisk, and a spoon or fork when picking out a bit to taste, all in one utensil. I think I get less burns on my hand because the cooking chopsticks are longer than most western cooking utensils.

I will probably add more to this list the longer we live here, but even if we move back to the U.S., I wanted to continue living with these customs!


  1. I forgot about the tea thing when I went back home to visit. I just wanted unsweetened tea, and had to go to a Japanese import shop to find it!

    1. I guess it's true what they say, we put sugar (and/or salt) in everything!

  2. Nice list. I agree with almost everything you write.

    I've heard and read many reasons for the lack of dryers. It seems like it is a combination of a lack of space, the perception that they use a lot of power and destroy clothes (both of which are kind of true, I suppose), and the fear that they are a fire-hazard. The only times I miss them are on rainy days.

    Re futons: When I visit my folks in America and sleep on their guest bed my back hurts terribly the next day. I love my futon.

    1. Aha that makes sense about the dryer. An Australian friend told me most Aussies don't use dryers either, for many of the same reasons.

      And I second the futon love!!


Thanks for reading, be nice!