Turning Japanesee

I’m moving to Japan in the Summer and so (or is that ahh so?) have been reading all kinds of books on how to ‘behave’ and be an ambassador for my country - all that bollocks. These books have titles like ‘Culture Shock’ and describe topics that one mustn’t bring up in conversation with Japanese people (e.g. never talk about mixed raced Japanese), and etiquette points to endure (e.g. never fill your own glass in company; never ask someone above you to pass you something).
I was wondering how much any of this is really relevant and how much is book filler? Do these scholars have it right, are the Japanese in Japan bent on social laws concerning absolutely every piddling little thing or can I actually relax when I’m out there? I can watch my P’s and Q’s like the next man but…

First of all, I think that I’d avoid statements like that. :smiley:

I’d help you out, but my only experience was a day in Japan, and my only reference is Culture Shock: Japan, so I’d be rather useless.

I’m a westerner living in China and I have lots of western friends that have lived in Japan, so maybe I can be of some help.

I will sound like I am generalizing, because that’s all one can do when talking about a country as a general experience. This is solely based on the experiences of people that have spent years of their lives living in Japan.

The Japanese don’t think terribly highly of foreigners, and do not expect them to observe all the proper customs. However it is greatly beneficial in all interpersonal relations to know what’s going on; for example who is losing face in a given situation and why, and how you can use that to your advantage. You will find the “Orient” a far more rewarding experience if you try to pick these things up as you go along. There is no need to feel as if you are going to take a test as soon as you step of the airplane, however. You are at an advantage already by having the kind of mentality to care about their culture enough to read up on it. :slight_smile:

All I can advise you is to read as much as you can without getting bored and above all to try to get to know Japanese people. Knowing the basics of their society can help greatly in breaking the ice and taking those first steps.

If you keep an open mind and are the kind of person that enjoys an eye opening experience I’m sure you’ll have a great time!

BTW, what are you going to be doing in Japan? Will you be taking a family with you? What city will you live in?

— G. Raven

Well whats relevant will depend on what you’ll be doing. As a foreigner, you will have probably quite a bit of leeway in most cases. However, in business situations and certain social settings you may be given less than the average Japanese.

There are several dopers expat living in Japan. Let us know where you’ll be.

You’re allowed to fart in public.

Hope this helps.

Japan is a neat country. You’ll have fun, and don’t worry too much about “fitting in”. You’re a foreigner, and as the previous posts pointed out, foreigners in Japan are treated almost as curiosities, so you won’t be expected to do things like bow. And if you go to a rural area, people may stare at you like you’re a space alien. I got a kick out of it.

There are a few things you can do that may help smooth the way - things that many Japanese don’t really recognize as culturally based, so they may cut you less slack on them.

  1. When you’re having a conversation, don’t start talking until the other person finishes. And don’t get uncomfortable if periods of silence as long as ten or twenty seconds occur. This is natural for Japanese, but extremely difficult to get used to for many Westerners. If you start to run off at the mouth, you’ll be perceived as impolite, or worse, a dim bulb. One of my Japanese colleagues’ worst insults to a person was “He speaks too much”.

  2. If there is a set agenda for anything - a meeting, a project, or a trip to the park (they like to plan everything) - try to follow it. This goes for activities that involve established methods. The Japanese view tends to favor correct method over correct results. Innovation will not be welcomed until you have demonstrated mastery of the accepted traditional way.

  3. Get a supply of business cards and give one to people when you meet them for the first time. When you hand them the card, use both hands, and act deferentially, like you’re handing them a fresh turd. Then when they hand you their card, be sure to briefly study it. You may even want to ask a simple question, like “Is this your office phone number?” Japanese are highly concerned with rank, and the business card exchange is the way rank is established. If they don’t know your rank, they’ll be uncomfortable trying to guess how to treat you.

  4. If you get a gift, don’t open it in front of the gift-giver. The thinking there is that if it’s a lousy gift, you don’t want to embarrass someone.

  5. If you’re male, you can pee in public. Just don’t do it on a downtown sidewalk.

  6. They say “aa so” all the time. Try not to laugh. It’s usually in the phrase “aa so desu ka”, which means something like, “Oh really”.

Don’t blow your nose in public. Don’t laugh at the people wearing surgical masks because they have a cold and they don’t want to spread it.
Carry extra tissues with you because not all the public toilets have paper.
Get your business card printed in English and Japanese, but always present it English side up, so you don’t give the recipient the impression that they can’t read English (most business people can read English, but they just don’t feel comfortable speaking it)

Don’t act like you know everything.

The Japanese are nothing if not polite, which makes it an easy place to visit.

Reminded me of James Dyson’s (inventor of the Dyson Cyclone) business trips to Japan to make a deal on distribution rights there. I gather that not only should you not blow your nose in public but you should always use a tissue, NOT a cloth handkerchief, and immediately dispose of it afterwards. Dyson had a lot of fun conspicuously blowing his nose at business meetings using a cloth one and then putting it back in his pocket, deliberately grossing them out. After a while they just accepted him as eccentric.

I’ll second Osakadave’s observation that it depends on what you will be doing. In addition, I think it depends on what your personality is like and who you are dealing with. Although there are some things that might cause offense if you bring them up - the Chinese occupation, mixed race children, sekuhara, the flag, and the U.S. occupation among them - it really depends on whom you are addressing. Many of the people knew in Japan actively pursued such topics with me because I was the only westerner they felt comfortable talking to about them.

On a more general note, here are a few more things you might want to keep in mind:

-Don’t move things with your feet.
-Don’t take offense if you are jostled on the street and no apology is forthcoming.
-Don’t be late for anything.
-Remember that bonding experiences are very important to the Japanese and refusing to participate too often will likely offend.
-If something major is offered, it is common to turn it down twice and accept the third after the third offer. Offeres made fewer than three time may be mere politness.
-Treat other people’s business cards carefully. Do not stick them in your back pocket.
Most importantly- Remember Gaijin Power: If you mess up on any one of these things, the vast majority of Japanese will laugh it off and give you another chance. Have fun.

Finally, a question that I can easily state that I am an expert. I have studied Japan and Japanese for over 15 years, speak it fluently, and have lived in Japan for 4 years. I worked as a teacher for 2 years and 2 years in an international relations foundation in Japan. I now work with Japanese industries trying to do better business in the USA.

The best advise I can give to anyone who is worried about fitting in Japan is to just be yourself, you will pick up what you need to do quite easily.

You should also make the best efforts you can to learn to actually speak Japanese. I have many ex-pat friends in Japan that feel like the Japanese just do not understand them. “Well, yeah! They don’t!! Try to speak some Japanese!”

In a nutshell, Japanese manners requrie that you think of those around you more than yourself. What this actually translates into is a bit more difficult, but it should not be hard to learn.

One shock you can expect for sure is the feeling of being a minority. Many white people that go to Japan get a cold splash of this right in their face. It is a rather big eye-opener for some people. You may see some blatent racism, which is not hard to deal with, but little things are what get to most people. The way people talk to you, or look at you. While of course it is not excactly the same, it is pretty close to what your average African American that lives within a white community deals with. Nothing inherently evil, but you WILL feel like an outsider at some point in Japan, but it is good to experience this for anyone.

You shouldn;t spend to much time reading books about the differences between the West and the East, learn the language and culture first hand. Other people’s bad experiences can taint your perceptions of what is real. Good Luck! Where will you be placed? I assume you are going on the Monbusho’s JET programme?

blade ohlsson

You may want to check out the book

“Confucious Lives Next Door” by T. R. Ried

The editorial review from Amazon.com:
"Despite setbacks, the economic “miracles” achieved by many Asian countries in the latter 20th century have been impressive. This entertaining and thoughtful book invites the reader to consider East Asia’s other miracle: its dramatically low rates of crime, divorce, drug abuse, and other social ills. T.R. Reid, an NPR commentator and former Tokyo bureau chief for the Washington Post, lived in Japan for five years, and he draws on this experience to show how the countries of East Asia have built modern industrial societies characterized by the safest streets, the best schools, and the most stable families in the world.

Reid credits Asia’s success to the ethical values of Chinese philosopher Confucius, born in 551 B.C., who taught the value of harmony and the importance of treating others decently. This is not a new perception–Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and others have rather heavy-handedly invoked it to claim moral superiority over the West–but the author’s vivid anecdotes strengthen its relevance. Public messages constantly remind Asian citizens of their responsibilities to society. To enhance a sense of belonging, civic ceremonies encourage individuals’ allegiance to a greater good; across Japan, for example, April 1 is Nyu-Sha-Shiki day, when corporations officially welcome new employees, most of whom remain loyal to their company for life."

It gives a good foundation of the priorities and culture in Japan, but without the “never point at a duck with your thumb” rules.

Argh! A topic I could post useful information to, and I miss the first three days of it!

Hmmm… As others have mentioned, there’s less pressure for foreigners to adapt in Japan than in other countries. You’re an outsider, and it’s not generally expected that you’ll fit in. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t try to be polite, but you’ll get a lot more leeway than a Japanese person would.

You probably already know about the shoes, but since nobody’s brought it up, I’ll mention it here. When you go into someone’s house, take them off! Also, if you’re wearing slippers inside someone’s house, take them off when you go into a toilet (there will probably be a pair of toilet slippers available at the door) or when you go into a room with reed-mat tatami floors (you just wear your socks).

Business cards. When you receive someone’s card, you should study the card closely and remember the person’s name. It’s considered impolite to take the card back out of your pocket because you forgot who they are. Fortunately, it’s acceptable to keep business cards on the table in front of you during a meeting. At large meetings, it’s quite common to see everyone (Japanese and foreign) with a dozen or so cards laid out to match the seating arrangements. One thing you shouldn’t do, however, is fold or write on someone else’s card. If you need extra information (email address, home phone #, etc.) you should ask the person to write it for you, or write it youreself on a seperate piece of paper. Conversely, it’s ok for you to write on your own cards.

Oh yeah, about the nose blowing: cloth hankies are for wiping sweat from your forehead and neck during the summer. Use paper tissues for your nose. Blowing is ok, but be discreet.

Other than that, I would advise just looking around at how other people behave, and asking someone when you’re unsure about something. Again, since you’re an outsider, you’ll find that people can be a lot more patient than you might expect.

By the way, where in Japan are you moving to?


Your profile doesn’t mention if you are male or female.
I just wanted to point out that, most of the above posts are assuming that you are male and you will be taking on a position dominated by male colleagues. If such is the case, much of the above advice is sound.

However if you are female, only some of the above applies. You would have to go that extra mile to earn your maleEcolleagues respect, and even then, you may not necessarily get it. As for the Japanese women, they will not know how to deal with a “big”, “noisy” foreign woman and will rather hide then to talk to you. Remember, these women are bread to serve man, and although there have been noticeable changes in recent generations; the majority of these women remain cute and dumb. (The smart ones leave for better opportunities abroad, or own and run their own small businesses or shops. Unless you will be working for a foreign company, where the gender thing is more often overlooked).

From my 13+ years in Japan, I have (with only a few exceptions), found the following to be accurate.

If you’re Male with an open attitude, you will love it.
If you’re Female, you will hate it. (Or at least severely dislike it.)


My cousin spent 6 months in Japan. On his first day, he was riding a train (very crowded) and as he disembarked, he accidentally stepped on an old lady’s foot. Now, my cousin is about 6’5", and 240 lbs of muscle. This woman wasn’t. Further, she was not happy with the toe crunch. She hit him with her purse.

Grasping for his very weak command of elementary Japanese he looks at her with big apologetic eyes and said, domo. She hit him again.

Trying to convince her that it truly was an accident, he continues his domos. She continued hitting him. He backed away and left.

About 300 ft later, he remembered that domo means “thank you” and not “excuse me”.

Are ALL Japanese this strict with the rules? For example, here in the states, we have non-practicing Jews who eat non-kosher foods. Is it the same way in Japan? Can you be a “non-practicing Japanese” person?

I would guess that the younger generation might begin to adopt the western culture and let many of these “archaic” rules slide.

Honest curiosity here…

That’s probably the case, malaka. I live in Korea, not Japan, but I suspect that my experience with guide books may be similar.

In general I have found that the cultural do’s and dont’s presented in many travel books about Korea have been misleading. This became especially apparent after I had worked here for a year, then was joined in this country by a university friend from back home. This friend wanted to make a good impression upon his host country and so studied the culture section of his Lonely Planet book intensely. He was suprised when my Korean friends had never even heard of some of his rules of etiquette; others, they assured him, would have been correct twenty years ago when dealing with someone’s grandmother but were not used today.

Here’s a brief list of culture notes from my Korean phrasebook which are (within my experience) either inaccurate or outdated:
[li]Always wear socks. It is impolite to enter someone’s home without wearing socks. My Korean friends have no clue where this rule came from, and one has even challenged the honesty of the Lonely Planet editorial staff over this one comment. In any event, here in Ulsan it is pretty customary for people of all ages and genders to go around sockless in summer.[/li][li]Don’t open a gift in front of the giver, unless express permission is granted. Again, the source of this rule is somewhat mysterious. Most of the time when I’ve been given gifts in Korea, I’ve been expected to open them immediately.[/li][li]There are two kinds of taxi- hail taxis and call taxis. The latter are more expensive. You can tell the difference between them by color. My friends and I speculate that this may be true of Seoul (or it once was), but it is not and never was true of Ulsan. During the first month he was here, my Canadian friend wouldn’t hail taxis that weren’t yellow because he thought they were more expensive. And, IIRC, in Ulsan call taxis are usually 1000W cheaper than hail taxis.[/li][li]When eating at a restaurant, do not offer to split the bill. The host pays for everyone. Usually true for company lunces and so forth, not usually true for groups of friends getting together. If someone invites you to lunch, they probably intend to pay. If a friend just asks you “are you hungry?”, he probably doesn’t intend to pay for your meal. Exception- the school at which I work, where there’s a standing rule that asking anyone if they’re hungry is an implied offer to buy hamburgers for the entire staff.[/li][li]The number ‘4’ is very unlucky. Korean buildings skip the fourth floor. Untrue. Many hospitals don’t have a fourth floor; other buildings almost always do. This superstition exists, but it seems to me to be far less widespread than the fear of ‘13’ in Canada. Several Korean friends have stated that this is a Chinese superstition, not one indigenous to Korea.[/li][/ul]

So, I expect the situation is similar with Japanese guide books. I agree with bladeohlsson’s advice about not letting guide books color one’s experience. The Canadian friend I mentioned earlier is practically a living example of this…

thank you for the replies. i’m going to teach english and i’m male… i hear tell round eyes get followed around by japanese girls? someone please verify this! :smiley:

I don’t think any Japanese person would consider his or herself “non-practicing Japanese”, but they don’t all slavishly adhere to traditional manners. This is, as you guessed, especially true for young people.

Some of the international students from Japan at my school once told me that they admired one of our professors (a Japanese woman of about 60) for being a real lady with proper manners – but that they could never act that way themselves. They said that they all liked to laugh too much. Apparently it is traditional for Japanese women to refrain from laughing or even showing their teeth in public, but even respectable young women from nice families do not feel compelled to obey these rules today.

You may or may not be followed around. You will find that dating here is quite different from back home.

On the negative side, I know several people who have been stalked, not just followed around. It can be very unpleasant. Stalking laws were enacted just last year, and the first case is being prosecuted now (IIRC).