12 Things NOT to do in Japan


I won’t lie, I didn’t know a whole lot about Japan before I got here. I knew what Pikachu was, and I’d seen the Last Samurai about three times, and that was probably the extent of my knowledge. I actually did most of my reading about Japanese etiquette on the horrific 12-hour flight between London and Tokyo. And I’ve pretty much just winged it ever since. In hindsight, there are lot of things I know now that I would’ve done well to comprehend before I got here, so today, I’ve taken five years of experience in the field and compiled it into this list of “12 Things Not to do in Japan”. So when you’re on your flight here, you needn’t worry about reading about cultural etiquette; you can sit back, relax, and enjoy the in-flight entertainment, with incredible titles to choose from, such as: The Emoji Movie! Valerian and the City of a Thousand Disappointments! Ace Detective Sherlock Bones! And I think we can all agree, of those three movies, the most compelling would have to be Sherlock Bones: Ace Detective. Especially with that brilliant tagline: “The world’s first talking police dog on a mission im-paws-ible!” “Mission im-PAWS-ible”… It doesn’t really work, does it? At all. So walking down the street whilst eating and drinking isn’t illegal; You’re not going to get shouted at and you’re not going to get arrested by Ace Detective Sherlock Bones. But what you will get is the stare of disapproval. (Christ no, please, I’m sorry.) A lot of people don’t know this one until you get here and never see anyone doing it. What you’ll find is, if someone wants to eat or drink something quickly outside, they’ll buy it at the convenience store and then eat it or drink it out the front. Same with vending machines; if they buy something from the vending machine they’ll drink it there and then next to the vending machine. The main reason is, people are very conscious about keeping the streets clean here, and you don’t want to ruin someone else’s day by having them walk through your spilt coffee. That said, all you need to do to avoid the stare of disapproval is just stop and eat and drink whatever it is there and then. Maybe it’s on a bench, maybe you’re just standing at the side of the road, whatever. Just don’t walk whilst eating and drinking and you’ll be all right. Three things to point out here: No. 1: Never put your chopsticks upright into the rice, as this is part of a ritual conducted at funerals when offering rice to the spirits of the deceased. Similarly, no. 2: never pass things from chopstick to chopstick, because again, this is done during funerals to pass the bones of cremated relatives. So that kind of imagery doesn’t go down well over dinner, as you’d expect. Probably best not to conjure up imagery surrounding death before- before you’ve even had your lunch. And thirdly, don’t do the rubbing of the chopsticks. You know when you open wooden chopsticks and you like to do that to get rid of the splinters and just because it’s fun. Everyone loves doing that, right? But don’t do it in Japan because it’s seen as rude to the owner because you’re basically saying, “Oh, your chopsticks are probably cheap.” Which, let’s face it: they probably are. In fact, they usually definitely are. Probably the greatest thing about Japan ever and the reason that I eat out several times a week, just because I save 20% automatically. In Japan it’s believed that customer service should always be exceptional, with staff giving 120% every time. 120%? 110%; 120% would be ridiculous. But it’s not necessarily rude to tip someone, it just creates this awkward situation where the worker, the staff, would feel like you’re assessing their performance and they could potentially lose face. So you might think you’re being nice by giving someone a tip, but you’re not. You’re just creating an uncomfortable situation for the worker and they’ll probably just reject your tip outright. So don’t be tempted to do it. There’s a real emphasis on being mindful when you’re using public transport in Japan that’s often completely absent in many countries. Numerous are the times that I’ve been riding a train in the UK and someone nearby has been screaming at their partner down the phone and I felt like I was part of the argument, like some kind of unpleasant 4D experience. But given Japan’s density, it’s especially important to be mindful when you’re stuffed in a train alongside fellow commuters, many of whom are sleeping, as well. With that in mind, don’t ever, ever talk on your phone on the train. That’s a massive like, NO thing to do here. And even talking loudly is looked down upon. If you’re on a local train or a subway train and you get a phone call, just ignore it until you get off. And if you’re on a bullet train you can go to the little compartment in between the carriages and take your call there. I remember, for the first few years that I lived here, whenever someone handed me a business card I was utterly terrified because until then business cards, to me, had always just been a bit of paper, a bit of card, with some writing on. But in Japan, they are so much more. Once you’ve exchanged business cards, the trick is to imagine you’ve just been handed the lost treasure of El Salvador or something. First, study it meticulously: the name, the job position, the details… And then either put it in your business card holder or just put it on the desk if you’re at a business meeting. Just put it on the table. Never play around with business cards or put them in your back pocket because they’re seen as a physical extension of the person themselves. And you don’t want to stuff somebody’s physical extension down your back pocket. If you’re doing business in Japan always, always carry business cards. You don’t want to be that awkward foreigner who’s stood there writing out their name and number 50 times in one hour on the back of a tissue. And for the record, I AM usually that awkward foreigner scribbling down my details because I do forget to bring them and subsequently, I hate myself when it happens. If you’ve got a runny nose, standard procedure here is just to keep sniffing or just to find a toilet or a broom cupboard to hide in. Blowing noses in public is pretty rude. Interestingly though, handkerchiefs are pretty popular here; not in the way you would think, though. People use them to wipe sweat off in the hot summer weather or, even more commonly, to dry their hands in public toilets. Because surprisingly, many public toilets in Japan don’t have any hand-drying facilities, despite having space-age toilets that reside in the same room. It’s quite a weird contrast that I don’t quite understand. Physical contact in Japan isn’t really a thing; you’ll bow a lot, you’ll nod enthusiastically daily. But occasionally you might shake hands with someone if they’re a good friend or a business client that you get on well with. But generally, I avoid it unless someone makes the first move. And hugging, in particular, doesn’t go down well. It’s just met with expressions of awkwardness and despair. And also, amongst couples, public displays of affection are phenomenally rare here. So don’t be surprised if you get the stare of disapproval (god, no…) if you’re kissing your partner frantically in the street. And I think that it should definitely be this. If you’re the sort person who feels the need to have a debate or an argument about things or throw your opinions out there constantly, people will find you obnoxious and dislikeable and probably just avoid you. Embedded heavily within the culture is this idea of keeping harmony and avoiding conflict at all costs. And it’s a lot easier to do that when people aren’t at each other’s throats, throwing around opinions. Sometimes it can be frustrating when people are just unwilling to speak their minds or give you a clear yes or no answer. I mean one time one of my colleagues, when I was teaching, I asked him, “Do you have any pets?” and he said to me, “Maybe my cat is dead.” Maybe your cat is dead. What does that mean? Is it dead, or is it not dead? It’s not Schrödinger’s cat, is it? It turned out the cat was definitely dead, but he was just the sort of person that always liked to use the word “maybe” and just not express certainty. But if there’s one reason I’ve never seen a fight anywhere in Japan in the last five years it’s probably this reason. The people are a lot more careful about expressing their opinions and holding back what they really think. Yeah, I couldn’t be bothered to film that one. Everyone seems to know this one already anyway. When visiting someone’s house, or entering a public building like a school, or going to a hot spring, you take off your shoes and switch to slippers before you go in. The easiest way of knowing if you have to change your shoes is there’ll be a change in elevation in the floor. So when you go in there’ll be a little stair and that’s when you know. This is the one thing on the list where failing to stick to the rules will have noticeable results. A few years ago, a friend and I visited a public bathhouse in Kyoto. And we went in and you’re supposed to take your shoes off. For some reason he didn’t; I don’t know why, I don’t think he noticed or saw. There was a little old woman sitting behind the entrance counter where you kind of pay, and when we walked in she saw that he still had his shoes on and she shot up with terrifying energy and ran over and grabbed him and took him to the front and was like, “Get your shoes off! Get your shoes off!” And that image has stayed burnt into my mind. This quiet little old woman suddenly becoming so alive and animated by this… terrible event. And ever since then I’ve never forgotten to take my shoes off when entering a building. For whatever reason, rubbish bins and trash cans are disturbingly rare in Japan. Outside of convenience stores it can be a nightmare to find one. And the reason I put this on the list is because so many people, so many of you guys, message me on Twitter saying, “I’m in Tokyo and I can’t find a bin. What should I do?” I’ve wandered through Tokyo for up to 20 minutes, sometimes, just in search of a bin and can’t find one. The streets though, despite that, are shockingly clean here because people– if they can’t find a bin they just take the rubbish home with them. It can feel like some kind of minigame, sometimes, going in search for a bin; because when you do find a bin you feel a real sense of achievement. But despite that, don’t be tempted to litter. Just keep trying and you’ll find a bin one day. Seems like a fairly obvious addition to the list, and yet in the UK we just cross the street whenever the hell we want; whenever there’s an opening in traffic, as opposed to waiting for the green light– same as many countries. In Japan, however, people do not cross the road on a red light. It’s incredibly rare and it’s one of the greatest ways of seeing this sense of order and obedience to the law that exists in Japan. If you stand at a roadside in Japan and there’s no cars coming, you can’t see any cars whatsoever, people still will not cross the road until it goes green. Over the years, of the many friends I’ve had come to visit me here, this is the thing that shocks them the most: the idea of not crossing the street when there are no visible cars there; the idea of abiding by a rule that doesn’t seem necessary. And yet, for me personally, the main reason I abide by it is, after a few years of being here you don’t want to stand out; you don’t want to be this stereotypical rule-breaking foreigner. And as well as that, you don’t want to run the risk of getting caught out by the police. So those are two things worth taking into consideration before you dash across the seemingly empty road. And the last one, DON’T worry about not knowing anything about Japanese etiquette when you come to Japan. Don- C H R I S T . As I said earlier in this video, there aren’t gonna be any real consequences to not following any of these things– apart from maybe the footwear one, that’s- that’s quite scary. You don’t want to get dragged off by an old woman. The reason I say don’t worry too much is because I find a lot of people come here and they’re very nervous and very anxious about following the etiquette; etiquette they don’t really comprehend. And that includes even me when I came here, I didn’t know anything. And I was constantly anxious and nervous that I was making mistakes. But really, as a foreigner in Japan, you get kind of a free pass to make mistakes. People are understanding and they’re kind and they will let you off, so don’t become too nervous about following all the rules. Do your best, but don’t become a nervous wreck. So those are my 12 things not to do in Japan, But what have I missed out? Let us know in the comments section below. I’ve probably missed out “don’t ever be late” and “don’t enter a bath or a hot spring without having a shower first.” Those are probably the other two key ones that I’ve missed out. And now they’re on the list! So this is actually 14 things not to do in Japan, so… bonus! Bonus stuff, there. It’s Christmas, so you get extra content. Natsuki: Happy Christmas! [singing] So is this Christmas, and [inaudible, but singing Happy Christmas (War is Over)]

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *