Visiting Japan I - People and Manners
Having spent a lot of time recently reflecting on my first six months in Japan, and looking forward to welcoming some visitors over the coming months, I thought I would write a few posts on the subject of knowing what to expect from a visit to Japan. If you have been fortunate to visit Japan already, I'd love to hear whether how your experiences compare! I also intend to resume writing about my experiences and lovely outings in Japan, so if you aren't interested in the "Hints and Tips" blog posts, I hope you'll still enjoy the other more whimsical and tangential posts to come.
When I first visited Japan I had heard of two major stereotypes of Japan: uptight, easily-offended older people clinging to ancient traditions and etiquette; and the technology-obsessed youth, living solitary existences in single rooms in Tokyo under the constant flashing of brightly coloured neon lights. Unsure of the seemingly vast and strict array of rules and customs, I was terrified of offending everyone in the first group with my loud, clumsy western etiquette, and the second group simply seemed entirely out of reach to someone who “doesn’t really get on” with basic smartphones.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have met with almost no examples of either of these stereotypes. Japanese people, like most people I’ve met on holiday/travelling, are friendly and accommodating, extremely welcoming to tourists and foreigners, and keen to share their love of their culture with anyone new. If the average Japanese person conducts themselves in a slightly more neat, quiet and considered way than the average Westerner, you’ll find that it is more than made up for in designated “down time”. When I spend time with Japanese friends, bump into acquaintances at sightseeing spots or festivals, or join in with a work party, I find people laugh loudly and enjoy themselves as fully as possible. It is somewhat similar to Britain in contrasting a fairly stiff etiquette for work-life and strangers with a love of silliness.
As a tourist, the people you meet will mostly be the owners or staff of hotels, restaurants, bars or sightseeing spots, and you will find all of these people friendly and helpful. If you have a question that’s outside the usual menu, opening times or prices, you may struggle to convey it, not just because of the language barrier but because Japanese people like to stick to the book, and will most likely not be prepared for unusual questions or requests. However, my experience is overwhelmingly that Japanese staff just want tourists to feel welcome and enjoy their stay and get as much out of sharing in Japanese culture as possible.
Lastly, you may find that strangers wish to practise their English with you. Since you are easily identifiable as a foreigner, some more-confident types may sit close to you at the bar or come up to you at tourist spots to ask you where you are from, and chat with you for a short while. I have always found these surprise chats to be delightful, although you should prepare a satisfactory answer to the questions “what’s your impression of Japan” and “what’s your favourite Japanese food” (hint: rice is not really understood as a separate food and ramen is considered Chinese, so stick to sushi, wagyu steak, udon/soba or tempura) if you really want the conversation to go swimmingly.
In terms of customs and cultural etiquette, one benefit of Japan’s ethnic homogeneity is that you are clearly marked out as a foreigner, and people will accommodate you and your odd manners (if they find them odd at all) and you will almost never be aware of having made a mistake. Although some Westerners seem loud and brash at times, I suspect that these are the ones who would seem loud and brash in any country. As long as you stick to what is polite at home, you shouldn’t have any problems. In my experience, people will welcome you regardless of your ability to speak Japanese or understand local etiquette
One exception to this is that occasionally, due to their own sense of politeness, people may be uncomfortable serving non-Japanese speakers, particularly if you are in a small establishment in a rural area and there is no English menu available. On these occasions, the best advice is to not take it personally (it is only shyness that prevents them from being happy to serve you) and either smile, apologise and look for somewhere else, or persevere with your visit to that venue in as quiet and unobtrusive way as possible, copying the behaviour and food orders of your fellow patrons and speaking any words of Japanese that you can. I have found these experiences to rare exceptions, and probably will not be faced by the "average" visitor.
In terms of additional customs that westerners may not be familiar with, here are a few that stand out to me (Note: for restaurant etiquette see separate post):
- You will often be asked to take your shoes off before stepping into certain types of restaurant, changing rooms in department stores or into the main hall of a temple. You should step out of your shoes onto the clean surface and either tidily leave your shoes where they are (face them away from the step for ease of putting back on later) or lift them in to a designated shelf or locker. Don’t put your dirty shoes on the clean floor and don’t put your clean feet on the dirty floor!
- · When you enter a shop or restaurant, you will be greeted by a chorus of “irrashaimasse”! This simply means welcome, and everyone who works there will say it, even if they can’t see you at all from where they are standing. You are not required to reply, but it took a bit of getting used to for me. I usually just smile, or occasionally say “konnichiwa” in return if I happen to make eye contact with the person issuing the greeting.
- · Bowing is still customary in Japan, although again it is not usually expected of Westerners. Unlike the familiar images in the West of a deep bow with hands pressed together, for the usual bow in Japan you should have your hands at your sides (or women may clasped their hands in front of them if preferred) and incline the head and body a little more than slightly. You don’t need to close your eyes or worry too much about eye contact, just do what the other person is doing. The most common situations to encounter bowing as a non-resident are purchasing an item in certain shops, when the shop-assistant will accompany you to the front of the shop with your purchase and bow to you as they hand it to you and thank you for your custom, or if someone helps you to find your way to something, or carries your suitcases to your room, for example, they will most likely bow slightly before leaving you.
- · In Japanese culture, it is not usual to say “no” to things outright. Although you will be forgiven as a foreigner if you use “ii-eh” (no), I would recommend using “kekko des” (roughly translates as “I’m ok thanks”). If a Japanese person is trying to convey that you cannot do or have something, you may encounter a drawn-out, slightly awkward pause, maybe with a slow inhalation or muttering of “agh…sumimasen…chotto…” all of which basically mean, “oh I’m so sorry… um…”
- Answering your phone public places is considered rude. As a general rule in Japan, I would recommend keeping your phone/devices on silent mode at all times. If someone's phone rings on the train or in a restaurant, they give a brief mortified look to everyone around them, and then run out of the carriage or outside of the restaurant and take the call there. No-one tuts (not out loud anyway), but it is easy to tell that this is disapproved of! Similarly, eating anything, doing your make-up (!), playing games to pass the time or even speaking loudly is not advised on public transport, The exception to this is if you are on a train with reserved seats, in which case take your cue from the other passengers, but you will find people eat hot and cold food, drink alcohol and generally relax on longer journeys.
In summary, apart from a few special cases, it is really quite straightforward to be polite in Japan, despite its reputation for being uncompromising. I admit that when I walk through crowds of impeccably dressed businessmen and chic, petite women, I do occasionally feel like a comically clumsy oversized monster. But I just take a little more care over where I walk and how I carry my bags, where I stand to make a phone-call or eat a snack, and I don't find myself the object of undue attention (other than the bemused looks of young children seeing their first foreigner).
Next up: money and transport.