After reading a bunch of ’10 things to know about Japan’ lists on the internet, I couldn’t help but feel that not many of them actually gave too much useful information, and instead at heart only seemed to really be berating the reader on the supposedly many mistakes that you may make as a ‘gaijin’ in Japan. In turn, I felt that this actually gave quite a negative depiction of Japanese culture and people, emphasising the idea of how different they are from us, how judgemental they may be of you and your foreign and ignorant ways, and how cautious and correct you therefore need to be.
Hence I decided it was time to make my own list, one which aims to disagree with the above notion, while in the process hopefully giving you a few tips that will actually make your life a bit easier or funner during what will – I’m sure – be a wonderful journey in the land of the rising sun (and ramen).
So to the list:
1. You Don’t Need to Know Much
Are you an asshole? Do people find you rude and offensive wherever you go? If not, it is likely no-one will think of you this way in Japan either, no matter what you know about Japanese customs.
I think a lot of being polite in Japan is actually the same as being polite anywhere else. You say cheers before you drink, you wait for others to have their food before you start eating, and you respect the rules of the house that is hosting you. And just like anywhere else, some people aren’t even that polite anyway; I drunk with lots of people who just downed their whiskey before cheersing me, or began eating when my food hadn’t arrived. My point there is not that some people are rude, but more so that the rules in Japan aren’t as strict as you may be afraid. I’m sure when doing business deals or, for example, providing services as a doctor or a lawyer, there would be some much more formal and strict rules that one would have to adhere by… but if your in a position that your Japanese is so good that you can do that, you probably know all there is to know, and are not googling things to know about Japan… so yeh, don’t worry kiddo, it doesn’t really apply to you.
Before I came to Japan I knew one thing; that you were supposed to take your shoes off before entering certain situations. But guess what? I forgot to take my shoes off all the damn time! So the only thing that I knew you shouldn’t do in Japan before I went, I still managed to do on a few occasions. Though what happened? Nothing. People pointed to my shoes, and I said ‘gomen (sorry)’ and smiled and took them off, and people smiled back and said it was ok. Hell one girl who noticed me do it then started chatting with me about where I was from and whatnot, then gave me her phone number, and we went out later.
I went around being myself, trying to soak in and learn whatever I could, and being smiley and chatty with everyone… and in turn everyone smiled back to me and treated me to so many different things that it would take a whole other blog post to list them. You are already googling things to know about Japan which shows that you have a respectful and curious mentality, and really, just like going anywhere else, that is all that you will need to come here and have a great time and not offend anyone.
So with the rant done, let’s move onto some quick tips. Starbucks has free wifi, but you need to register online before you can use it. Using my pigeon Japanese, in my first week I managed to just about ask some guy in the Starbucks if I could use his internet to go and set up an account for myself, but I’ll spare you the trouble of awkward explanations and much confusion, and give you the English link here. Go to that link and register, then you can connect to the internet every time you are near a Starbucks. This is great for saving money on costly overseas data roaming charges, and for the price of a coffee you can sit in there for as long as you like with high speed Internet and do your mail, or research about where to go or whatever.
Another reason you will be wanting to use the internet on your smartphone is LINE. LINE is the smartphone free messaging application that uses the internet and that all the kids be using in Japan these days, so download it. If you meet someone you want to meet up with again sometime, ask for their LINE id, and then whenever you pass a Starbucks (which are everywhere) quickly connect to the net from outside (if you don’t want to spend money on coffee) the store to send and receive messages to organise a meet up.
You are going to love me for this piece of advice, and indeed I wish someone had told me before I went. There are no bins on the street in Japan. None. Hence I spent 2 and a half months keeping rubbish in my pockets, storing it until disposing of it upon return to my house. Then I found out that in the ‘Konbini’ (convenience store, ie Family Mart, 7/11), which are on every street, there are bins and you can just walk in and put your rubbish in (there’s recycling too).
4. Word of Warning to the Nasally Endowed
I have quite a big nose. If you have a big nose too, expect that Japanese people will comment on it. Often. However know that they are not being rude; in Japan it is considered ‘bery handusome’ to have a big nose, and they are only trying to compliment you. Read more about my experience with this revelation here.
To order the bill in Japan you don’t do the thing where you mime signing something with your hand as we do in the west, but instead you cross your arms vertically and make an ‘x’, as if you were a power ranger. You then say ‘chekku o kudasai’, where chekku means cheque naturally, and kudasai is essentially the word for please. There’s also no tipping in Japan, so don’t even bother trying. Additionally the food I will miss most from Japan is ramen. This is not because it’s the best dish, but just because we don’t have it in the west really, so unlike sushi or katsu curry, I won’t be able to eat a ‘shiro (white) ramen’ again at home. When you go to a ramen place – which you will – you may find that you have a lot of soup left, but have finished your noodles and would like more, so ask for a ‘kaidama o kudasai’ and then they bring you over another plate of hot noodles to pour back into your soup. Eating out is really not too expensive in Japan, and you can get a good meal for about 600 yen, while also the Konbinis have very nice food, which is cheap, and that they will heat up for you in store so you can actually get a pretty damn big and delicious feast just there for only a little bit of money.
If you’re not planning on moving round Japan too much, I’d recommend getting a bicycle. You can go to a ‘Home senta’ or equivalent big store, and pick up a bike for about 6000 yen ($60) , which comes with a light and a nifty little lock on the back tire, so you don’t need to spend anymore on locks or anything. These bikes are not very fast, but they’re good for just casually cruising around on the pavement getting from place to place. The Japanese cycle on the pavement, so don’t worry, it’s pretty much the norm there and no-one will think you are being an asshole. I personally found the trains a stressful (and expensive) experience, as I don’t like cramming onto small metal cans, and having a bicycle within one week saved me about its worth in train fares, while all in all making for a far more enjoyable way of getting around Tokyo and Yokohama.
7. Learn Japanese
I know you’re about to read this and go but I’m only going for a week or something, and Japanese is Japanese, it’s impossible bla bla, but just hear me out here quickly:
I worked with the stupidest Turkish person that ever existed and he could get by in Japanese. When you go to Japan, you realise lots and lots of expats speak Japanese and it’s not really that big a deal. Japanese is actually a fairly simple language (except for the writing bit). The order of the words doesn’t really matter, and the verb just goes at the end. The verb also does not change with the person doing the action, ie in English; I do, he does etc, but in Japanese ‘to do’ is just always ‘suru’; ie I suru, you suru, we suru. While also all the sounds used in the Japanese language already exist in English, so pronunciation is really not a problem.
The Turkish guy had terrible grammar, but everyone always understood him. He probably only knew 100/200 words, but again everyone always understood him. All he did was say words then put the verb at the end; ie ‘Watashi konbini iku’ literally being ‘I convenience store go’ and of course meaning ‘I’m going to the convenience store’. Then if you say that you want to do something, just say the thing ie ‘watashi Konbini iku’, then afterwards says ‘hoshi’.
I am not teaching you 100% correct Japanese here, but people would understand. My experience of Japan was that Japanese people’s English was terrible, but more importantly, that Japanese people loved it when foreigners could speak Japanese. The fact that I could speak Japanese is what got me so many free dinners, litres of sake, gifts, offers, you name it; people were always inviting me to chat with them. And this was even when my Japanese sucked. You can still have a fun conversation when both of you can’t speak much of each other’s language, so what I’m saying is if you’re going just for a week; just learn a bit, you’ll have much more fun and experience way more of the culture. Go learn the 100 most common words in Japanese (do a google search), don’t bother messing with the grammar, just instead remember that you put the verb at the end, and have some fun with it. Languages aren’t about academics and grammar books, they are about speaking and interacting with the world, so get a bit of vocab and get chatting when you arrive.
Check out this page for all my language learning advice.
8. Leadership and Community
Japanese people kind of have a group mentality, and often look for other people to instigate things. I’m not saying all Japanese people are like this, but this has been my experience often. On my last night in Japan I went to WOMB (a great club in Tokyo) and no-one was dancing. I started dancing a bit and some guy came up to me to ask me to teach him how to dance, so I started doing these silly little moves with him. I then took him to the middle of the floor, grabbed a couple of other people as well (despite their initial shy reservations), and got them to join in with my moves. By the end I had 12 Japanese people all synchronising up with me and following whichever new move I started. It was a lot of fun, and I suppose my point here is that Japanese people on a night out can be a lot of fun, and are always up for games and stuff in groups, so if you go out, be creative, grab people and get them to start playing some game with you or do some thing. Also if you see a girl you fancy at a bar or club, you need to be assertive, go up to them, say hello, and take their hand and try to whisk them to the bar or for a dance. But yeh anyway, I’ll leave that point there as I now see this article going in a whole different direction, and don’t want to become bogged down in the difference between East and West courting rituals and how to get a Japanese girlfriend/boyfriend…
9. Touching is OK (mostly)
I read a lot about touching not being ok before I went to Japan, and so here I’d just like to drop my two cents on the matter.
I definitely did not find there to be any problems with touching people in Japan. When out at restaurants or bars, within minutes of speaking to most guys they may have put an arm round my shoulder, or would be grabbing my arm whenever they said something. In fact if I think about it now, I’d probably say I was a little more touchy with people in Japan than I’d been back home in the west, and often when you’d find me chatting to people out at a bar or something I would have my arm round the shoulder of some guy or girl.
Though saying the above, I did find occasionally that some people were visibly quite uncomfortable with being touched. But in these cases, you just don’t touch them again and it’s no harm done. So if you’ve heard that you don’t touch in Japan, well don’t live in cautious fear of this is all I’m saying. Better to be friendly and physical off the bat with the majority of people, and sometimes make the odd mistake of touching someone who is uncomfortable with it, than be cautious and weary about touching everyone, being physically cold, just to offset the much (in my experience) lower chance that you run into someone who isn’t comfortable with physical contact.
10. Watch my documentary
Finally, I’d recommend watching this 20 minute documentary I made about Japan. It was made with thanks to Yoshi, a new friend who showed me around Yokohama and explained various elements of Japanese culture to me, it also shows us partaking in a quite strange yearly tradition in Japan that I’m sure you will not have heard of…
All my stuff is not for money, and advert free (except youtube puts banners on my videos without asking!), I just hope you enjoy it.
And with all of that information digested, I shall bid you adieu, and wish you well for your upcoming trip. I can only hope it will be (at least) as enjoyable as mine.
Other posts and tales from Japan to check out: