It is always important to adhere to the customs and values of the country you are visiting, and this is especially true when visiting Japan. Unlike many other western cultures which are a melting pot of ethnicities, Japan’s population consists of mostly ethnic Japanese. In homologous societies such as this, it becomes more expected that you fully understand and practice the local traditions and rules.
Japan shares many aspects of western philosophy but also embraces its differences. As a foreign traveler, it is important to recognize that these cultural differences are neither right nor wrong, they are simply different. The most respectful thing you can do before traveling to Japan is to research the country’s cultural values so you blend seamlessly into society when visiting.
The following are some common aspects of Japanese etiquette and cultural norms, and how you can fit in as a foreign traveler
What may be deemed as being cold by western culture is actually Japan’s way of being formal. The Japanese usually refrain from physical contact and won’t engage in too much small talk. Personal space is respected and people generally try to be unassuming.
Shaking hands is replaced by bowing, and this is done frequently instead of solely for greetings. Bowing in Japan can be used to show your gratitude, or as a sign that you are remorseful. Bowing more deeply is used in more formal instances such as business dealings whereas a casual nod is used most other times.
As a foreign traveler, it is important to keep in mind that speaking bluntly is considered rude. Speaking your mind is not usually practiced in Japan nor is making prolonged eye contact or anything that could be deemed as confronting.
Friendship and Respect for Others
The Japanese take friendship much more seriously than you may be used to in your country, and although it may take longer to gain friendship, it is much harder to break once made.
People generally do not judge nor talk down to those with inferior backgrounds or statuses. Respect for others is very apparent when you spend time in Japan, and the country has one of the world’s lowest crime rates. Punctuality is of huge importance in Japanese society and is seen as a sign of respect. The Japanese will always be a few minutes early, so you should make a concerted effort to never be late, whether you have an appointment for a business meeting, are meeting a tour, or catching up with friends.
You should always remove your shoes when entering someone’s home and even some restaurants, where practicing proper table manners is expected. This means using chopsticks properly, eating quietly, waiting for everyone to be served drinks and meals before starting, and fully finishing your meal.
In more formal situations, people generally wait until they are instructed to sit, enter a room, or address a person of importance or seniority. If traveling for business, always carry business cards as they are widely used and deemed important for showing your seriousness to do business. Treat any business card given to you with respect in the presence of others – you should accept it with both hands, and take the time to read the card before putting it away.
When visiting a host family in Japan or simply friends, it is a nice gesture to bring a decent gift. Gift giving is a very popular Japanese tradition.
Gender and Social Roles
Japan is still a rather patriarchal society where gender roles are a bit stricter. Although women are not submissive or devoid of self-determination, there are traditional expectations for wives and mothers that act as a sort of barrier to gender equality.
The monarchy consists solely of males and the women hold less than 10% of the seats in government. The majority of working age women seek employment but are far more prevalent in part-time work and are paid around 40% less than the average man.
Japan has made recent strides regarding gender equality issues and today’s women model many more westernized traits. The contraceptive pill is now legal and sex out of wedlock is not looked down upon as much as other Asian societies. More than half of Japanese women are college or university graduates and household chores once solely performed by women are now beginning to be shared by husband and wife.
When it comes to social roles, seniority reigns more supreme. It is expected that you respect management and do not challenge authority. Younger or newer employees are expected to look at those with more experience as their mentors.
Unlike expansive countries like the United States, Canada, and Australia, Japan is a small island country where space is precious and maximized. You may find that homes or hotel rooms offer much less space than you may be used to.
Children usually live with their parents much longer than is normal in Western countries, and even young married couples may live with their extended family. Japan is much more of a community rather than focusing on the individual.
The most common religions practiced by the Japanese are Buddhism and Shintoism. When visiting temples and shrines you are usually expected to remove your shoes and are asked not to enter if you are ill.
Pay a visit to the purification fountain if you understand the correct procedure which involves rinsing your hands and mouth. Place donations in any offering box and look for signs regarding photography restrictions.
When visiting a restaurant in Japan, it is expected that you clean up after yourself. People refrain from eating while they walk as it is seen as impolite, and most Japanese people take rubbish home with them instead of placing it in a public bin.
Littering is almost non-existent and streets are therefore spotless. Japan’s recycling policy is also quite strict. You will also find very few instances of graffiti along the streets. Houses in Japan are kept immaculate and children help keep their schools and classrooms tidy by cleaning up at the end of each day.
Surgical masks are commonly worn to avoid spreading germs, especially when someone is sick. Japan’s high population density means people are usually always in close contact with one another, so this prevents many airborne sicknesses.
Photo by Kevin Utting via Flickr
Service and Gratuities
Unlike many western cultures where tipping is encouraged or even expected in industries like hospitality, it is deemed insulting to do so in Japan. But you will find that despite the lack of tipping, Japan offers some of the finest service you will find anywhere.