Japanese Culture Tips

Part of learning Japanese is learning the Japanese culture. If you look up lists of “do’s and do not’s” in japan, you’ll often get the same old “Don’t talk on the phone while on the train”, or “don’t trespass into construction zones, repeatedly.” thrown in your face. So I wanted to talk about this stuff here as well, I’m sure most of us have some stuff we know about japan that aren’t often listed online.

Here’s some advice I learned, while doing a tea ceremony.

(place) 田舎
During a tea ceremony always drink with the cup’s main decoration facing away from you.

Please say the place name, if you can without doxxing your location. because there may be cultural things that are different through japan. (looking at you, escalators, I just go up the center.)

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I think a lot of things I’d have to say in this are probably known to people who are studying Japanese and posting on a forum about Japanese grammar however…

Basic tourist faux pas:

  • Use the correct bins for your rubbish (please don’t put burnable stuff in the PET bottle bins that are found by vending machines)
  • Stand on one side of the path, preferably the left (people are trying to ride their bike or get past you and you’re in the way)
  • Call the waiter over to you
  • There will often be some little snack or something served and charged to your bill in busy izakayas or independent bars (has many names but mostly お通し). This is not a scam. If you can’t eat it then you can ask to have it taken off the bill but mostly people never do that.
  • Slurping noodles, especially ramen, is fine however if you cannot do it properly without splashing it everywhere then please just eat it normally.
  • Use your chopsticks to eat your karaage. It’s not KFC - there are no bones.
  • Don’t eat umeboshi all at once on its own…unless you want to but…
  • You can’t use your credit card with vending machines. Use your IC card (suica, icoca, etc) or cash.
  • You don’t drink the broth that noodles (ramen, soba, udon) come in. You can if you want to but it’s not expected or anything. Ordering more noodles (替え玉) and eating the broth with the noodles is common though.
  • Many shops will ask if you want your card charged in one payment or split up. God knows why those exists but just be aware of it.
  • The open/close door buttons actually work in Japanese lifts. Use them.
  • There will be multiple speeds of train running from the same platform. Catch the right one. Please get on the slow (local, every stop) train if you need to. Use the fast ones (only certain stops) if you don’t need one of the local stops.
  • You can buy shinkansen tickets on the same day in most cases.
    -Don’t bring ten tonnes of luggage onto the shinkansen.
  • Ramen shops will often ask things like how spicy you want the broth, how hard you want the noodles, if you want certain toppings, etc. Consult a guide or a menu before going to a shop to avoid confusion.
  • Beer is served with a head and even sometimes with ice. It’s normal - they aren’t shafting you. (Perhaps some British people are bothered by this one)
  • Konbinis basically all run on the same script (do you want a bag? Etc). Look it up beforehand to avoid confusion.
  • I don’t smoke but if you do then you can ask for cigarettes using the number it has on the shelf.
  • Don’t research places to eat and drink in English unless you want to go somewhere that mostly only other tourists go to. Plenty of them are good but don’t expect “a local authentic experience” if the suggestion is the top English language reviewed place on google maps
  • Toilets won’t have a place to dry your hands so bring a little hand towel.
  • In the summer you will sweat like hell. Wear something like a uniqlo airism base layer to wick the sweat and look after your personal hygiene.
  • Everyone knows the rule about turning the pattern round on the 茶碗 but beyond that no one knows anything really. Perhaps they know the fact you are meant to drink the tea in 3.5 mouthfuls.

Mistakes westerners who learn Japanese as a hobby make (冗談半分):

  • Your Japanese is much worse than you probably think it is (whether you find this a source of motivation or not is personal)
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This tripped me up so much when i first went to an edion. I was just buying a fan and they asked me how many payments. Luckily (ironically to your last statement) I’m much better at japanese now than I was then.

Plus i can vouch for the uniqlo airism, it’s amazingly good.

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The first time I was asked I understood but I assumed that I’d made a mistake and misunderstood as it made no sense to me 笑

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This right here :point_up:.

It’s annoying, but I guess I understand their reasons.

While most people do follow this rule, you still see it being done here and there.

Also, lot of Japanese people play mobile games on their phones. They turn the volume down though.

Lastly, Japanese people (mostly young people, but also older people) chat on the train frequently. I feel like the “don’t talk on the train” rule is a bit exaggerated. That said, as a 外国人, it is obviously better to follow this rule.

If I remember correctly, in Osaka most people choose the right though, so it depends on where you go. In Tokyo, it’s mostly the left (as you said). As long as you follow what most people do it’ll be fine.

Another thing I noticed is that pedestrians get the right of way when crossing an intersection. Japanese drivers are very conscious about it.

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Do they? I feel like cars always try to run me over. lol I’ve even seen them speed up as I was getting closer to the intersection.

Oh yeah, please park in bike lanes if you have a bicycle. they can sometimes be hard to find, but just keep your eyes open. there are almost always spots.

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They do get close to pedestrians, but they stop. I think they do that because otherwise the cars behind them might not be able to turn if more people cross the intersection after they pass. At least that’s what I think.

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This is the same in every city I think (at least in Spain and I can guess the rest of Europe too). Cities are busy, people walk everywhere, while you’re in vacation, most people have to get somewhere, so don’t stand in the ways of others.

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Without getting too far into generalisations I will say that it is normally not European tourists I notice commiting that particular sin. Regardless, people are generally very jetlagged and in full “oh wow Japan” mode when they’re here and get in the way without meaning to. Not as bad as London is but still.

Also, at least in the UK, you can’t (or, rather, shouldn’t) ride your bike on a path so you may not realise you’re holding up a lot of cyclists here even if you’re generally savvy as you may simply not be expecting cyclists to be behind you. People tend to not ring their bell here.

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I find that it’s very time/place dependent – mid-day on the train heading into downtown Osaka? Yep, there’s gonna be tons of folks chatting, it’s totally cool just don’t start a screaming match or something weird.

10 pm on the last train heading out to your local stop 45 minutes away from the city? It’s quiet. People are tired. If someone is talking/being loud, it is probably someone drunk and no one nearby looks very happy about it. Probably best to be polite to the folks around you and not hold any loud conversations. (Quiet whispering to someone next to you shouldn’t get you any murderous looks, usually.)

Basically: 空気を読もう、みな!

This is probably correct. You will still get 日本語上手’d to hell and back. Most people mean it kindly, so try not to get aggravated if someone tells you your Japanese is good because you checks hand said “ありがとうございます”.

  • If you’ve got a backpack or other bulky bag on public transit, pull it around in front of you or find another position where you can easily control its movement. This one’s straight off of Japanese “good manner” signs on the train; it’s really easy to bump someone with your bag if you’re wearing it normally, especially if the train or bus is particularly crowded.

  • OP joked about escalators, and I’m sure this isn’t just Japan-specific but I’ll mention it anyway. Folks here are actually pretty good about the left/right separation for standing still vs. walking on escalators (I won’t specify which side is which, because that’s regional; throws me every single time I visit Tokyo, lol). Keep an eye on the people around you and match accordingly.

  • Actually, to extend the “talking on trains conversation”: elevators are weirdly silent over here. Obviously it’s not a 100% all the time thing, just like with the trains, but it is super common to get into an elevator (which also tend to be…much smaller than American elevators) and be able to hear a pin drop.

  • If you’re in a restaurant and you want to edit your order somehow (no sauce on a meal or something similar), expect to be asked if you have allergies. People don’t seem to do that very often here, so if you do their first concern is if you’re allergic to something. Probably good to teach yourself to recognize アレルギー in a conversation and learn how to explain that it’s not one (or that it is, if need be). I tend to just go for アレルギーなし、好き嫌いだけ which isn’t all that grammatically great but it works well when I inevitably panic because it’s really hard to understand keigo-japanese in a loud restaurant.

  • If you’re a fellow American and rarely use military time; be very careful with any sort of tickets you’re buying. Don’t be like me and buy a ticket for a thunderbird train for 7:00…when you need one for 19:00. That was a moderately expensive mistake to make, for sure.

  • If you’re here for a longer time and you’re getting something delivered: unless it’s amazon (or you’ve somehow expressly specified otherwise), the deliveryman will not leave packages at your door if you aren’t home. You’ll get a little slip in your door-post that tells you when they tried to make the delivery, and if you’re lucky it’ll have a QR code to reschedule the delivery, usually by selecting a two hour timeslot. (If you’re not lucky, you’re gonna have to make a phone call. Good luck.) 8/10 times they will come in the first 5 minutes of that time period, so be sure it’s a time you’re going to be home.

  • Back to trains: Japan isn’t as 24-7 as some parts of the US, even in the bigger cities (at least in my experience). Check your last train times. Taxis can be reallllll expensive if you miss it.

  • Related to the 24-7 thing: a lot of stuff closes earlier than you might expect (again, compared to my experiences in the US.) Sometimes this is inconvenient, but it also means that some stuff is less crowded in the evenings, like the movie theaters. I was rather surprised when I realized that matinees were the popular movie time in my area, rather than evening showings.

  • Especially if you’re traveling: coin lockers are you friend. Japanese transit hubs, like train or bus stations, will have these all over the place. They’re even pretty big. If you’re planning to be out and about for the day and don’t want to keep luggage with you, they’re usually only 500-700 yen. Just…remember where you left it, lol, because said transit hubs can also be rather labyrinthine. (Obviously Japan is not the only place with coin lockers but BOY it feels like there are a lot more of them, and a lot bigger ones available, than I’m used to back home.)

Anyway, this is all based on personal experience (in the kansai area), so your mileage may vary. But it’s some of the stuff I’ve noticed.

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To help consolidate some of this into patterns you should look out for, if you’re willing to put in some time, make a script template (i’m wording this idk someone make a better term)

Purchasing something with the cashier

  • cashier will ask card or cash etc. (I kinda was like ah yes カード and the other thing must be cash)
  • cashier may ask single time purchase vs multiple installments (not even with interest lol at least at the big stores I’ve been to in Tokyo) (as already mentioned above)
  • 7/11 cashier will ask you if you have a membership with them (I already forgot the term but the first time I heard it I kept saying hai and then they got confused)
  • cashier will literally double check the expiration date of your product and confirm you want to purchase (the cashier at Nintendo center in Shibuya when I wanted to buy piplup cookies) (WHY ARE THEY SO NICE THIS IS COOL)
  • big stores will give an option to purchase in yen or US dollars (plus for Americans)
  • the Japan tax-free duty thing, when you buy a ton of stuff and it’s cheaper because no tax. Yea use that if you’re not a Japanese resident.
  • in my experience, interactions tend to go faster depending on who’s comfortable with which language. If the cashier actually speaks decent English, and your 日本語は上手ぽくない then it’ll go faster if you use English. If you’re okay with slower pace and you want to practice Japanese good on you!

For whatever reason Tokyo/Kyoto generally has to take your credit card and slide it for you. This means that it’s actually faster to just have like apple pay or Google wallet (tap to pay).

Well, tap to pay is faster but less stores offer them in the US.

This is different from in the US, you normally slide your own card, there are some exceptions. I can’t speak for other countries

Meanwhile, if you’re in the 田舎 cash is important, but for an American like me, it’s crazy how fast the city just turns into rural. So it helps me to keep this in mind.

Also the tourist centers around Tokyo actually helpful – the people there were dressed in kimonos (am I surprised) but genuinely helped me figure out where I can go.

They also helped me figure out that the SIM cards in Japan typically don’t have phone numbers, they’re data only typically. WHICH IS SO ODD; apparently to get a phone number with SIM card you can buy them online but like before you enter the country.

In the actual stores in Tokyo (Shibuya) I literally listened to the person explain all their sim card options in Japanese before I realized that there’s no phone number. えっと‥シムカードは電話番号がありますかと聞いたけど‥

I might think of more, I’ll stop here for now.

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Quick addition to this one; if you’re buying a drink they may ask if you want a straw, and if you’re buying any kind of meal-item they may ask if you A) need chopsticks or B) want it heated up.

Oh, and for regular shopping; if you’re buying something breakable (ex: a Detective Conan themed bowl) they’ll open the packaging and ask you to check that the item is okay – no scratches, chips, etc.

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If the Japanese person you’re speaking with is capable of so-so English, don’t be like my mother and speak English back at them in a high-pitched baby-like tone.

You’d think this would be obvious, and yet it took me two weeks to get her to stop.

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Excuse me if I missed someone answering why they do this, but thought I’d answer this specifically as I’ve met a lot of foreigners living in Japan that seem to not know the reason for this.

It’s because credit works a bit differently in Japan, and this question is almost always specifically for credit cards.

In Japan, if you have a credit card, you’ll always pay the full fee straight away, but the credit company will only take installments from your actual ‘cash’ bank account in monthly increments based on what you do at individual shops.

For example, let’s say I buy an $800 TV on my credit card. The shop will ask me if I want to split the payment. So I say ‘Yes, 4 payments please’. What this means is that the $800 comes off my credit card max straight away, but I only repay it at a rate of $200 per month from my bank account, because I chose 4 payments. This is great if you want to make big purchases but not feel it too much in your ‘real money’ account over a longer period.

It gets confusing with smaller companies/supermarkets where you may only spend $5 but they still ask you if you wanna split it. In this case it’s usually cause the company has a deal with credit companies where the client pays no lending fee, regardless of the amount, and the shop itself will handle the 負担 ‘credit fee’. It’s actually a great system!

Just know that 99% of the time they ask this question, they aren’t asking if you wanna pay half cash/half card, they’re asking if you wanna split your credit bill because this is completely normal here, even for groceries.

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Do we have the same mum?

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Japanese social culture can be split into two categories:

  1. Things that are obvious and you probably learned as a kid if you grew up in a proper home in a Western country.

  2. Things that you can learn easily just by watching other people.

People discussing Japanese culture online tend to get lost in their infatuation and make a big deal about things that are normal in the West too. A great example is something like honne and tatemae. Sure these days a lot of people in the US are solely honne as it has become popular and accepted to act that way, but it’s not like tatemae is solely a Japanese concept.

Another example is doing things passively. For instance, you might say 難しい instead of “no” when your coworker asks you something, and I have heard Westerners complain about this in the past but the reality is that we do this sort of thing all the time in the West too like the act of ghosting people instead of telling them our real feelings.

And this applies to many other topics. Talking on your phone in the train is rude in any country, nobody wants to hear your phone call. Lots of people take their shoes off inside because leaving them on is disgusting. Respecting people with seniority over you is the norm anywhere in the world. Need I go on?

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My fiance was just joking about this. We’re headed to Osaka in a couple of weeks. She calls 大阪駅 “ダンジョン駅” so that will be fun. (She is Japanese, so I’m taking her word on it.)

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Since I’ll be going to Japan for the first time (and out of my country for the first time as well) in a few months, this is all really helpful. Some of the stuff I knew already, some I didn’t.

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私の苦労を知っているね!

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I didn’t know that, thanks! This is quite common here in Brazil. :slight_smile:

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