Seeing beneath the appearance of any civilization isn’t easy, especially if you’re at your very first contact with it. Even in neighboring countries that share a lot of history, culture and customs with your own you might feel like a complete stranger, let alone experiencing a distant culture. It’s hugely important to understand and never underestimate the levels of discrepancies and how important some national customs have become for some states, in time.
Cultural differences are something to really be taking into consideration whenever you’re visiting, as and European or American, Asian countries. By far, the most culturally complex is Japan. Japanese people are known by the Westerners as almost a different breed, governed by distinct rules, principles and social constructs. So there are some things you’d better write down before going on your trip to Japan if, among other things, you’re taking into consideration getting closer to the Japanese civilization.
1. Bowing and showing respect. You’ll find that these bows depend on different factors and circumstances, such as the relationship you’re having with the one in cause or their social distinction/role/position. As no more than a tourist, you can simply incline your head as a sign of respect and it should be enough. The natives tend to welcome their friends with a more casual, 30 degree bow of the head and/or the waist, while it’s simply unacceptable to address an office superior with less than a 70 degree bow. The longer the duration, the higher the respect you’re showing will be perceived.
Whenever you’re personally addressing someone on their name, you should never forget the suffix ‘san’ or ‘sama’ (the last one’s more formal and solemn) at the end of their last name, just to make sure they won’t take your dialogue as an insult before you even start your sentence. As about children, if a child addresses another they usually only use their names, but if you’re eager about showing respect there are two suffixes for addressing them too: ‘kun’ for boys and ‘chan’ for girls. This last rule is not necessary, however, in informal contexts.
2. Before actually going to a bar and leaving a large tip, you should know that tipping policies are usually perceived as insulting, as if their job isn’t good enough, they’re inferior and they would need extra payment out of mercy because you’re in a higher social position. So no matter the circumstance, cabs, restaurants or pubs, just forget the tipping! However, most of the tourists don’t take this policy into consideration and, out of ignorance, tip the waiters (or whoever offered the service). Once this is done, the person will simply take the money and feel insulted instead of taking the time to explain every tourist how they understand the tip in the terms of their culture, sparing themselves the awkward conversation held in broken English.
3. Holistic views. The worst things you could do in Japan is try to attract attention (or, even worse, do it out of purpose). Their culture, unlike the American/European ones, is focused on the group, the society and its needs. This, as peculiar as it may seem to a Westerner, doesn’t make them robots, just particularly careful to their public self. Don’t expect to see people speaking on their cell phone in public means of transportation or eating on the go – these individualistic gestures are believed to be selfish and private, therefore there is no real reason for which the social contexts should witness some intimate behaviors. Moreover, a survey made among students in Japan showed that their biggest fear is individualism, becoming an outcast who doesn’t serve the greater good, but only his own selfish needs. History shows, after WWII the Japanese society recovered so fast thanks to this social belief, internalized by all individuals – that the social mechanisms can only work properly if there’s a sustainable, relentless common effort held by every each social actor.
Therefore, although you’ll surely stand out as a foreigner, you may at least be careful not to draw too much attention on yourself as a sign of respect for their culture. Here’s also not blowing your nose in public (it’s unbelievably rude!). Don’t forget that one of the national proverbs is ‘The nail that sticks out will be hammered down.‘
4. Table habits. First, whenever you’re at a nicely planned party don’t drink before someone takes the lead and wishes ‘kampai!’, their equivalent for ‘cheers!’ and holds a small speech. While eating, you’re allowed to make all kinds of noises while slurping hot food, it’s perceived as a sign of enjoyment by the owners of the local (or by your host).
Most of the Japanese restaurants will also offer a wet cloth that you can use to clean your hands before eating, and under no circumstances should you use it as a napkin or touch your face with it, or else you’ll really have all the attention in the local! After you’ve used it and your hands are nice and clean, you can fold it an put it aside on the table. The last thing it would be nice if you did before actually eating would be saying ‘itadakimasu’, meaning ‘I will receive’. This remark shows respect for the ones thanks to whom you’ve got something to eat now, therefore it’s not weird to say it in supermarkets or fast foods either.
Of course, if you’re trying to be proficient in the Japanese culture, eating with chopsticks would be awesome and people really appreciate the effort. As about what it takes to learn it, it’s really easy. If you’re having second thoughts about this, imagine that three year olds can use them without problem. This stereotype that the Japanese culture can’t be understood by foreigners is truly groundless, and all you have to do is try and understand that we’re different. It doesn’t mean that we can’t learn their habits and behave in their way as proof of respect. It’s true, there are some restaurants, especially in Tokyo, where eating with chopsticks isn’t necessary, but you’ll really gain their appreciation if you took a moment to understand their cultural customs. Plus, you’re allowed to raise your bowls to the mouth to make eating easier, especially when you’re served rice.
Never use your chopsticks as a toy, it’s believed to be rude, as well as is sticking your chopsticks in your rice or stabbing something with them (and always use the special holder if you want to put the chopsticks somewhere). Don’t eat directly from the common dishes (always put food on your own plate before starting to eat, however starving you are)!
Another interesting rule to be followed is not to help somebody pick their food (they’ll think you believe they’re really incompetent at best, the alternative is they’ll remember a funeral ritual and think it’s impolite and disgusting).
5. Take of your shoes! Whenever you’re entering a home, a hotel or even a business headquarters you may be expected to take of your shoes. Most of the times there will be spare pairs of indoor slippers just near the rack where you should put your shoes, but you could act like on of them and simply have your own pair of slippers in the bag, just in case. Tatami mat is the traditional Japanese floor covering and the clue for when you’re not supposed to use slippers is whenever you’re walking on this. The toilet slippers are also pretty popular and if you won’t use them your hosts may think you’re vulgar and lacking in manners. Highly impolite is coming on the main room with slippers that have been on dirty linoleum, or instance.
6. Language. Most of the people will just presume that you’re a native English speaker and it would be polite to try to really have most of your conversations in English. Even if you happen to know little (or even more!) Japanese, they’ll just insist in proving that – as good hosts – they possess the necessary English skills socially required to have a conversation. However, you’ll find that not most of the people here know as much English as you do, even if you’re not a native – and it’s only natural, giving the geographic differences.
Nonetheless, it wouldn’t harm knowing some default phrases to address people whenever in need for something, especially if they don’t understand English very well. The key of doing well as a tourist in Japan is kowing to say ‘Yoroshku onehgaishimus’, an idiom that can’t be translated literally but it semantically means something close to ‘do your best, treat me well, please!’. Generally speaking, the natives react like real hosts whenever they hear this from the mouth of a foreigner. In case you’re planning to party, ‘Mo dameh. Yohparachatta. Gomen’ means ‘No more, I’m already drunk, sorry!’ and it may be very useful no matter the context.
‘Koh-nah ni keeray na tokoro wa hahjeemehteh meetah!’ is saying that you’ve never seen such a beautiful place before and, believe it or not, all the natives will blush when hearing this. They’re very proud about their culture and national achievements (and you could see why) and being polite with the Japanese is unbelievably helpful.
‘Sumimasen’ is the perfect word if you don’t have too much time to learn their language, because it’s multipurpose used. You can excuse yourself like this, call the staff, thank someone and as an intro whenever you want to ask someone something.