DEOW Japan > Guide to Living in Japan: Mental Preparation

In this article, we give you important heads up regarding some of the major societal and cultural differences in Japan that non-Japanese people are likely to face, with a focus on those which might cause the most confusion or culture shock. The idea is that by expecting these situations in advance and taking a stab at understanding why they occur, we can perhaps ease some of the negative surprises, and make it easier to appreciate and embrace some of the differences of life in Japan.

Although being aware of these Japanese cultural differences might be most useful before actually coming to Japan, this article might offer solace, acknowledgement or clarity for those who have already experienced these cultural differences first hand while living or studying in Japan.

Things to know about life in Japan

Cleanliness & Deportment

Everything is so clean and organized!

Japan is perhaps one of the cleanest countries in the world. No matter where you go, you will scarcely see garbage lying around. It is for this reason also that littering in Japan is extremely frowned upon and highly discouraged.

Relatedly, wherever you go, there is an expectation to manage your belongings and keep them neat, especially in public places. In fact, even if you go to another person’s house, the manner in which you handle your own belongings, for example how you set it down, is typically noticed and tells about how much you respect your own belongings. This goes double when handling other people’s belongings or gifts that people give you (including business cards). In general, you should aim at being aware of your belongings and ensuring that they don’t cause inconveniences to others.

In Japan, people are also sensitive to personal hygiene. The image you convey is not just the image of yourself, but also a gauge of your consideration of others. Having good personal hygiene is important so that everyone is comfortable and feels respected in the general public, in your workplace, as well as with your friends. In terms of deportment and clothing, Japanese people can be said to give particular consideration to the TPO (time, place, occasion) of every sort of meeting. The way you dress is a way of showing your respect to the relationship or the company.

Garbage cans

Where are the garbage cans?!

It might save you some confusion or frustration if you know in advance of coming to Japan that despite how clean Japan is, even in its megacities, it is remarkably difficult to find a public garbage can anywhere.

Related to the idea of everyone being responsible for their own belongings at all times, the same goes for belongings which you think you are done with (ie. garbage), which is still considered your responsibility. As such, Japanese people will carry their garbage with them, perhaps in the plastic bag that it was delivered in, until a public garbage can be found, which you can find in most train stations, near vending machines, around parks, or at convenience stores. If none can be found, you should otherwise dispose of it at your home. After all, it is yours. In the case of throwing it out at convenience stores, it is a bit of a relief that, despite how embarrassing you might think it is, using these disposal facilities is considered relatively commonplace, perhaps in light of the scarcity of garbage bins available otherwise.

Conservative attitude and behaviour

Everyone is so quiet and respectful…

If you were unsure if your stereotypes about Japanese people being generally quiet and well-mannered, well they are basically true.

In public places at most times of the day, Japanese people are generally quiet and don’t randomly start a conversation with people they don’t know. Moreover, even in the case of a friendly staff member at a restaurant with whom you communicate at length or a new friend to whom you were just introduced, there may be times that you feel he or she is reserved in nature and generally not very forthcoming. In some other cases he or she may visibly seem like he or she wants to say something more but is holding back. Know that with other people in different situations, this person is likely a lot more open, but when confronted with the choice to express oneself where there might be a small risk – ie. you expected the shop staff to act strictly according to his or her role, or the new friend is not certain how you will feel about a topic – Japanese people are likely to err on the side of social safety, even if deep down they feel differently.

Japanese society is indeed one where people are sensitive to overstepping or transgressing, and this applies to everything from interpersonal relationships to clear societal standards, cultural expectations, rules and laws. In fact, once a rule has been clearly defined, even if it has no legal basis or doesn’t quite make sense, Japanese people take the rule seriously and will follow it without complaint or heavy criticism. A simple example of this is how even on a quiet street with few cars around, Japanese people most often wait patiently for the crosswalk signal to allow them to cross than to j-walk.

Blowing your nose

It’s not a thing to do in public.

Although you won’t cause offense to do so, blowing your nose in public is very uncommon in Japan. Especially in confined places like trains, you will find that most Japanese people will opt to sniffle during their entire train ride than blow their nose. So if you do need to blow your nose, perhaps consider doing it discreetly and preferably not in confined public places. Instead of actually blowing one’s nose, Japanese people will instead quietly wipe their nose with their personal pocket tissue or mini personal towel called a hando taoru, literally “hand towel”, which is about the size of a western face towel.

Pocket tissues

You will need them.

Because of this tendency to not blow one’s nose in public, it is much harder to find appropriate tissues in public, which is why, like Japanese people do, it is probably a good idea to carry your own pocket tissues with you. In fact even in restaurants where you might hope to find napkins or tissues, in Japan it is common to receive only a packaged wet tissue or an o-shibori (wet towel), or to get tissues that are plasticky and stiff in texture. In all of these cases, you will likely prefer to have your own tissues for wiping your nose.

Cash Society

You will need cash at all times.

Although in your home country you may be able to get away without going to the bank or ATM to have cash on you, in Japan you will realize very early on that it’s necessary to always have cash on you.

This comes at a surprise to many people, especially considering how technologically advanced we consider Japan to be, with people that care about convenience and safety. But it is actually in the principles of convenience and safety that Japanese people aren’t sold for the use of cards. It is suggested that Japanese people have a strong faith in cash as a guaranteed method of payment as it there are fewer risks of over-spending and less risk of being fraud.

It is good to know that because Japan is in many ways still a cash society, paying for a small item at a convenience store with a large bill is not frowned upon, although the shop staff will happily wait if you have some smaller change to pay with as well. Moreover, Japan is a considerably safe country with very low risk of theft or pick-pocketers. Even if you forget your wallet somewhere in public, it is common to be able to retrieve it with all of the cash still in tact.

Minimal English

People don’t speak English as much as you might think or hope.

Many English-speaking people will be able to rely on their native language when travelling abroad, as most people do speak English and sometimes quite well, as is the case in Europe, however relying on your English alone in Japan will leave you feeling little lost and helpless.

Despite the modern lifestyle, the efforts of the government to promote English in society, and the number of Japanese people who reportedly desire to improve their English, it may come as a surprise that even in the busiest and more touristy of places, you will find Japanese service staff who cannot speak a lick of English and restaurants that only have signs and menus in Japanese.

It is for this reason that we recommend you to learn your Survival Japanese and consider specifically learning useful Japanese language for Restaurant Communication.

Bicycles on the sidewalk

Despite designated bike lanes on the roads.

While you are walking on the street in one of the safest countries in the world, the pleasant conversation you are having with your friend may be interrupted by a rider on a bicycle who appeared out of no where and is now behind you waiting quietly for you to notice him or her and move out of the way.

Despite the rising popularity in bicycle lanes in Japan, especially in the cities, it seems that many bicycle riders think of the street as the highway and the sidewalks as side streets that they can use freely.

Depending on which country you come from, you will may find it stressful and aggravating to suddenly need to avert your attention from what you were doing and move out of the way for a cyclist who doesn’t bat an eye and simply waits for you to accommodate his or her passing. Expect this to happen to you and find console that fellow Japanese pedestrians also share our frustration.

Restaurant service

Some nuances you need to know…

At many restaurants in Japan you will get a packaged wet cloth at the beginning. Whereas in many western cultures, wet cloth would be made available for after a meal, like chicken wings, in Japan the wet cloth is larger and is served before meals for you to clean your hands, even if the food doesn’t require your hands (which it almost never does in Japan).

95% of the time, you will need to call the server vocally when you want to order. People who don’t realize this might come to think they have been forgotten, but in Japan it is normal to give the customer the time to settle and think about the menu before ordering. In a few occasions you will find a button you can push to call the server over. Otherwise, use your Survival Japanese to announce you are ready.

Whereas many fast-service lunch establishments have water readily available on the counter or give you a glass by default, in izakaya or bars, you may find that no water is offered or given, even though you are ordering alcohol. Moreover, when you order water, you may find that the glass it comes in is remarkably small. This might be frustrating, but the servers don’t seem mind coming back to accommodate you, so feel free to keep ordering more.

Even though Japan, as mentioned above, emphasizes cleanliness essentially everywhere, including your hands before you eat, you may be surprised to find that in some restaurants, shopping centers or even in department stores the washrooms don’t have soap! If you are a clean freak who looks forward to a good hand wash after using the washroom, you might be caught off guard toward the end.

You may already know this about Japan, but indeed Japan is a non-tipping society. Despite how much you may have loved the service, tipping will often be misunderstood as forgotten change, or be humbly refused as the staff are not permitted to accept tips are simply feel that they don’t need it and are happy only that you enjoyed yourself.

Read also the Guide to Living in Japan: Eating Etiquette for a more thorough guide to dining.

The Guide to Living in Japan Series

Whether you are thinking about moving to Japan, are already living in Japan, or are just curious about what is life like in Japan for Non-Japanese people, the Guide to Living in Japan aims to be as thorough as possible about what to expect and what to prepare for when living in Japanese society from a mostly western perspective.

Should you have any questions or comments while reading through, please contact us. We aim to continually update and improve this resource for everyone.

Read more articles in the Guide to Living in Japan:

DEOW Japan > Guide to Living in Japan: Mental Preparation