One Thing You Must Never do in Japan

Fruit flies.  I woke up on my futon and all I could see were fruit flies, which for some reason, eh, didn’t seem all that unusual.  Probably because when you live in Japan, strange stuff just happens.  I don’t know why.  Like the other day I rolled over to find my futon soaked with sweat and my apartment about 140 degrees, despite having cranked on the A/C the night before.  Hey, is it my fault that “heater” and “air conditioner” share the same kanji?  That’s more of a product-safety issue for the thermostat manufacturer, I think.  A lesser individual might have perished in his sleep.  Good thing I was well hydrated with malt liquor before turning on the heater and going to bed.

Japanese Do’s and Don’ts.  Or just Don’ts.

Anyway, all that hotness really seemed to explode the old fruit fly population, adding to an ever-lengthening list of stuff one shouldn’t do in Japan:  Don’t press buttons you don’t fully understand.  Don’t go outside without a shirt on.  Don’t wear your shoes into the house.  Instead, wear these tiny slippers.  But don’t wear them on the carpet—that’s only for socks.  And don’t wear them into the bathroom either; instead, wear these other tiny slippers.  See how they’re different?  No?  Well, they are.  Stepping out on the balcony without a shirt?  What are you, a idiot?  Put on a robe, and the balcony slippers, for God’s sake.

To be honest with you, the county’s laid with traps from floor to ceiling.  Like, last weekend’s a good example, since I was at this Japanese girl’s apartment, and we were savoring a bottle of sweet white wine and a can of Pringles.  Hey, Ken Seeroi’s the kind of guest who doesn’t show up empty-handed.  I mean, like thoughtful, because who doesn’t enjoy the subtle flavors of sour cream and onion?  Please.  And she had this lovely glass lamp hanging from the ceiling in the middle of her apartment.  It was beautiful.  You can probably see where this is going.  So when I walked in, the very first thing she said, even before Hello, was, Don’t hit your head.  Yeah, well, that lasted about a minute.  Can I help it if I’m descended from people with amazingly durable skulls?  That’s actually genetic advantage.  Google it and you’ll see, I’m pretty sure.  Anyway, you’d be surprised how much glass one small lamp is capable of producing, as were we.  I was just glad I’d put the lid back on the Pringles.  Safety first, I always say.

The Japanese Psyche

My point is—if I can remember where I was going with this—is that something about the Japanese psyche seems to revel in saying “Don’t,” as opposed to, Oh I dunno, hanging your damn lamp a couple inches higher.  Sorry, my bad.  Anyway, there’s no end of the “Don’ts.”  Don’t get in the bathtub without showering first.  Don’t pour soy sauce on your rice.  Don’t assume that hot girl waiting for a bus wants to chat with you.  So many small rules to be aware of.  She was probably on her period anyway.  Don’t take it personally.

But with all the helpful advice Japanese people give me on a daily basis, somehow they neglected to mention the one thing you must never do in Japan:  Don’t leave a wet plastic bag of potatoes on your balcony for two weeks.  Maybe it’d be okay in winter, I don’t know.  I’m not a scientist.  But in summer, I feel confident in saying that, whether you put on the balcony slippers or not, when you open that bag, bad things are waiting.

Honestly though, I thought all those fruit flies were just from the plums.  That would make sense, because I also had a wet bag of plums in the front hall.  Not to mention the pumpkins, mushrooms, and zucchini.  See, I got back from the Japanese farm a couple weeks ago, dripping with rain and struggling with my muddy boots, and I had craploads of crops. And not your neatly arranged farmer’s market vegetables and fruits either.  I’m talking a full crapload of produce.  That’s a lot.  It’s a technical term.

Working on a Japanese Farm

I don’t even like working on the farm, honestly.  But since I’ve got these Japanese friends who are farmers and they send me emails like, Ken, when do you want to harvest with us? there’s not much I can do.  I’m always like, How does “never” work for you?  I mean, farming involves two things that I’m morally opposed to:  mud, and hard work.  It’s common knowledge that civilization solved those problems over a hundred years ago, back in the Dark Ages.  That’s why we have the internet, so we don’t have to use oxen and stuff.  But since they’re genuinely nice guys, I put on my boots and gloves and went to the farm again to plant some stuff and pick some other stuff.  Who knows what it was, vegetable matter or something.  And my buddies were invariably helpful, saying things like, “Don’t hold the shovel like that, hold it like this,” and “Don’t get bit by snakes.”  Farming’s great, let me tell you.

But the main problem with working on the farm, aside from horrible dirt and bugs, is all the crops I get.  Farmer guys are always like, Want some onions?  Great, here’s a hundred.  And I’m like, first of all, there’s no way I can carry eighty pounds of onions home on the train, nor do I have space to store them, and most of all I don’t even cook because it’s a pain in the ass.  That’s why I have a real job and I’m not a freaking farmer, to make money so I don’t have to do stuff like that.  But how you gonna say no?  They’re all like, but these are the delicious onions we all planted together.  Here, take at least fifty.  So I came home in the rain, on the train, with my onions, and my plums, and all these other freaking crops, and got into my apartment and took off my muddy boots and put on my slippers and then took them off again when I reached the carpet and then started trying to stash all these wet bags of produce around my tiny apartment.  I put a bunch out on the balcony, after carefully putting on a robe and changing into the balcony slippers, and a few dripping bags in the bathroom while wearing the appropriate bathroom slippers, before hopping into the tub after showing first.

Fruit Fly Fixer

Then over the next week I labored like Hercules cooking, freezing, and giving away crops to coworkers and random girls waiting for buses, until all I had left was a bag of plums.  It took me till midnight, but I finally managed to submerge those fruity bastards in some white liquor to make Japanese plum wine, before collapsing onto my futon amidst a swarm of fruit flies.  I took to blasting them with hair spray, which worked pretty well.  My hair looked great too, but it sure did make the floor sticky.  Well, there’s some drawback to pretty much everything, I guess.

But they kept coming.  They multiplied like, I dunno, some sort of winged insect.  I was like, Where the hell are these coming from?  They were everywhere, especially on the balcony.  That’s eventually what led me outside in my slippers and robe.  And I have one piece of advice for anyone in Japan who discovers a wet bag of potatoes on his or her balcony:  Don’t look inside.

Pandora’s Bag

You know Pandora, like with the box and all?  Yeah, well at least at the bottom she still had Hope.  But when I opened my bag a hellish smell rushed out, and what I saw inside wasn’t freaking that.  It turns out you can produce something that looks and smells exactly like baby poo even without the actual baby.  So full of mysteries, nature.

I threw off the robe and raced though my apartment still in the balcony slippers while grabbing every bottle of liquid I could find—Fabreez, Listerine, soy sauce, plum wine, bleach—bleach, that’s the ticket, I thought, and poured the contents of the bottle into the bag of potatoes.  Of course, it should be immediately obvious to anyone that pouring bleach into a bag of rotting potatoes is a poor decision, but you know, hindsight and all that.  The smell got much, much worse, and the bag started oozing liquid something horrible.  So I grabbed more bags.  I put everything inside two other plastic bags.  Then I double-bagged that.  And still the smell continued.  That’s when I realized it wasn’t trash day.

Trash Day in Japan

In Japan, you can’t just throw out your trash whenever you want.  There’s a big sign in front of my apartment that says “Don’t discard garbage on the wrong day.”  This essentially makes everybody’s balcony into a personal trash collection facility.  Like, it probably took my friend a month just to throw out her wine bottle and broken lamp.  That’s why I forgot about my potatoes, because they were buried under a bag of malt liquor cans on my balcony.  See how complicated Japan is?  It’s not just me, I think.

So I decided to take my potatoes for a little walk.  It may not be trash day in my neighborhood, but it’s damn well trash day somewhere.  But you know in Japan, you can’t just go outside without looking good.  Don’t forget to shave.  Don’t wear a bathrobe.  Don’t stroll around with a sack that smells like baby shit.  So many cultural mores.  But there’s also a Japanese solution for all that:  the surgical mask.  Got acne?  No makeup?  Socially inept because you grew up in this country?  Yo, problem solved.  I decided a beanie and some sunglasses might also be a nice touch, then set out amidst the salarymen in suits and women with small dogs with my terrible cargo.  I am the veritable ambassador of good will.

Toxic Waste in Japan

I’m not going to tell you that I walked for two hours looking for a neighborhood in which it was trash day, sweating like a bonsai tree in a barbershop.  I’m not going to say that I eventually tossed my stash into the garbage area of a large apartment complex two towns away then set off running.  Ken Seeroi in no way implicates himself in the dumping of toxic waste in Japan.   Let’s just say that the problem worked itself out, and my fruit flies have returned to normal levels.

Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff you shouldn’t do in Japan.  I know because I’ve done pretty much all of it.  But it’s best not to dwell on the small things too much, because they just distract you from the big things you really shouldn’t do, anywhere.  Like, well, farming.  That’s why God invented restaurants, to save us from things we don’t have to do any more.  And that’s just where I went after another long shower, to a nice Japanese restaurant.  And looking at the menu, I briefly reviewed my list of what not to do:  Don’t pour soy sauce on the rice, don’t start eating without saying itadakimasu, and sure as hell don’t order the potato salad.

39 Replies to “One Thing You Must Never do in Japan”

  1. Hurray, a new article has arrived!

    A couple times I thought you may have gotten onto a health streak. “Not to mention the pumpkins, mushrooms, and zucchini.” hmm, that’s a suspiciously high amount of vegetables for Ken…oh, farming….Oh he decided to keep the plums, I guess he’s saving them for snacks–nope, he’s making liquor.

    Great post Ken, very entertaining 🙂

    1. Fear not. Although my vegetable intake is indeed impressive, my health is in no danger of improving any time soon. I maintain a strict salad-to-french fry ratio. That’s the only way to ensure a properly balanced diet.

  2. Yet Again… another comedic masterpiece Mr. Will Rogers!! I really felt good after reading this one Ken, so so many smiles!

    Your farm commentary reminded me of a new anime that just came out about agrarian life in Japan; where they just talked about eggs coming out of a chicken’s anus – shining a whole new light on breakfast dining, cough cough!

    For the fruit flies: there’s this little tennis racket gadget that has a metal electric screen where the strings would normally be and is battery powered to zap the little buggers. They sell them here in the States, so they might have them in Japan and they work great on smacking little pesky insects like fruit flies (though hair spray seems like so much more fun).

    I suppose umpteen different slippers are cheaper than re-flooring the home every 5-7 years. WAIT – Do you think all these different slippers make Japanese women have pretty feet? Hmmmmmm!

    1. You are invariably too kind to me. “Comeic masterpiece” is nice to hear, but I’d be happy with “didn’t suck.” It’s all about having low standards.

      As for the feet of Japanese women, I’ll say this. All those amazing, sexy high heels they wear in their younger years don’t do them any favors when they get older. I’ve seen some middle-aged ladies with feet that were just wrecked. I appreciate the effort they made, but jeez, I’m not sure it’s worth it. Gotta protect the old biomechanics.

      1. Ken,
        I’m not that kind, I’m just a realist!! I call em like I see ’em, and I see a talent for comedy with wit and humor in abundance on a subject that is considerably Inscrutable to the masses of Gaijin. As once was said about Will Rogers by Will Rogers: “You can’t make any commoner appeal than I can” and your appeal is quite uncommon in this day and age!!!!!

        1. Well far be it from me to turn down a compliment. Encouragement really does keep me going. It’s very, um, encouraging. Anyway, thanks much.

      2. Ken,
        You should start a YouTube channel and make some videos that demonstrates all of your adventures complete with all of your humor and then some! You could probably get a pretty good following on the level of the Annoying Orange (there’s that fruit again!).
        Keep those great stories coming!
        -Jack

        1. I know. There’s the list of Stuff I Should Do, which isn’t always the same as the list of Stuff I Can do Well or the list of Stuff That’s Going to Eat up all my Remaining Free Time. I somehow need to make those lists agree. Ah, I really gotta outsource my videography to India . . .

  3. Funny again, Ken!

    Now, about don’ts – my friend said once that it would be a good idea to give visitors a brochure in the airport that covers basic rules that are not obvious (that’s about 95% of them.)
    Even after visiting Japan many times, I’m still struggling with some cultural scenarios. Do you mind sharing how you deal with these?

    Shoes: I understand slippers for toilet, for balcony and for the rest of the house, and no shows at all on tatami. I even learned to have spare socks (they are cheap in 7/11) with me sometimes. However I see people routinely skipping the slippers inside altogether, and walking between tatami and other floor types wearing socks? Is this OK?
    Beach: How do shoes (and having something to sit on) works here? Ground is technically “dirty” but on the beach I see people sitting on the sand sometimes.
    Shoelaces: “Dirty” or not? Is is rude to tie them on the street?
    Food on the train: Usually – bad. But on the empty trains, and in most long-distance ones, like shinkansen, people bring and eat bento etc. When is it OK?
    Drinking on the stations: I see some people refraining from drinking while standing, but not all.
    Drinking in the train: I see that some people drink while sitting, if train is empty. Is this OK?

    I know that’s just scratching the surface. We should have wiki for this, I think.

    1. Yeah, there are a lot of things to wonder about, but behaving properly in Japan basically boils down to two things. Mind these and you’ll be fine here, and pretty much anywhere else.

      1. Have exactly one iota of common sense. Do you think what you’re about to do is rude? Did you even think about it at all? Yeah, maybe you should. Like you’re on a train with only three other people. Maybe it’s some fantasy, imaginary train, I dunno, because everybody else has mysteriously vanished. Well, whatever. Anyway, you suddenly remember, Oh, I have a delicious cheeseburger in my bag! Okay, now’s your chance to use the iota. Would eating it bother other people? If your mom was here, would she think it was rude? How about your grandma? Is it an amazing double cheeseburger, or perhaps one with lettuce? There are many factors.

      2. What does everybody else do? Because culture is formed by people all doing the same stuff. Look around, and do that. Be part of the team. Remember, there is no “me” in team. Wait, is that right? Well, whatever.

      So to answer your questions specifically: The shoes thing—some households wear slippers, some don’t, and some people are more anal than others. Use the eyes, Luke.

      The beach is dirty because, I mean, well, it’s made of dirt, just really pretty dirt. But hey, it’s still just the beach, so relax. Take off your shoes. Do whatever you want. Then before you go home try to wash and shake off whatever sand you can. Guess that’s pretty much the same anywhere.

      Shoelaces. A gray area, but you probably shouldn’t put them in your mouth. Try to keep them clean. If you need to tie your shoes, tie your shoes. But try not to look like a five year-old by stopping in the middle of a busy sidewalk.

      Eating and drinking anywhere. Ask yourself, if you were to wait until you got off the train, or off the platform, how long would that be? Behave like an adult and show some self-control. You can wait 10 minutes for that cheeseburger. The Shinkansen is different, in that you’re on it for a long time and it’s like an airplane. You’ve got a little tray table and you can settle in and enjoy a bento. But a regular train, well people eat once in a while, but personally, I’d be embarrassed. Not that I haven’t done it, but it is a bit, um, gauche.

      Whew, that sure turned out to be a long reply. Well, hope it helps somehow.

  4. Yay Ken! A new article 🙂 I guess that little break you had helped you produce such an awesome article! I always get such a kick when I hear about the japanese “no-no’s” you do and the funny ways you deal with them 😀 thanks for sharing the wisdom as always and as I am also very tall (6ft), I’ll make sure to keep and eye out for chandeliers on my nex visit.

    1. Yeah, no joke, I’ve cracked my head on a lot of lamps and door frames. A helmet would probably be a good idea.

      1. I might agree with you on the helmet, but after many trips to construction sites with hard hats required, the damn thing sits off your head a few inches and you never can seem to duck low enough to make it under the scaffolding bars. That being said I guess the real question is what’s more important? Your head, or snapping your neck in half because you missed the opening by a 1/4 of an inch. Either way you’re gonna look like a moron, and I’d rather not mess with the hair do. lol

  5. Seeroi-Sensei!
    Your writings have become even more hilarious and realistic since I’ve come to Tokushima for summer school. Some things work so well and yet others are crazy, including the people! Don’t even get me started on Japanese girls… Just a quick question, I’ve a week of travel before I head home to Ireland and I was wondering is there anywhere you’d recommend going near the Shikoku area? Myself and 2 friends are heading to Hiroshima and Matsuyama all going to plan.

    1. Hey, glad to hear you’re enjoying Japan, and that some of what I’ve written has clicked for you. And yes, I do in fact have a travel suggestion for you. It looks like Miyajima might fit in well with your travel plans. It’s got a bitching torii in the ocean, and a bunch of cute deer that will sneak up and start chewing on you. It’s well worth a day trip.

      1. Thanks man and because of your writings Ive been kind of desensitised me to the crazy stuff in Japan! Yeah we were thinking of heading there, it does sound amazing! Just recently realised there isnt much point coming back to Tokushima University for my year abroad because Im a business major and it doesnt even have a business school haha Ill probably head to Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto, any recommendation which would be best to live in for 9 months? Cheers again Ken!

        1. You know, personally I’d go to Kyoto if I had the chance. Don’t know about living there long term, but for 9 months, I bet it’d be awesome. I’ve been there many times and really love the city. Osaka, eh, not so much. Tokyo, well . . .

  6. Question Time,

    I was showing my Great niece some Anime about some young girls that go to study in Japan from England: called “Kiniro Mosaic”. It’s a very sweet and “Kawaii” series (only on the 3rd episode) and just recently they broached the subject of talking in english between each another around the Japanese kids and how the other children thought of it as cool and cute. Frankly, I can’t believe that. There were Korean kids in our school when I was in High School and I remember distinctly thinking how rude that was to do in front of other people.

    Is this something you’ve experienced first hand in your teaching? And do you think the Japanese kids would really think it was cool? Here is the episode where this occurs and its @ 10:55 min into the video:

    http://www.animeultima.tv/kiniro-mosaic-episode-3-english-subbed-video-mirror-590796-VideoNest/

    Since this is made for Japanese TV are they trying to teach the kids to like Foreigners better? Is this another Do or Don’t?

    1. That’s a pretty interesting video. I’m gonna need some time to fully process it, because it’s pretty far from ordinary reality: two blonde girls who can speak Japanese. There also seems to be a lot of idolization of foreigners, which doesn’t really jibe with my experience. My first take is that the underlying issue is how “Japanese” these girls look, and as such, whether they’re considered to be actual foreigners, or merely Japanese “halfs.” Because it’s anime, you can’t really tell how “foreign” they look, other than from their hair color.

      People who look “foreign” are expected to speak English. Actually, for someone who looks foreign to speak fluent Japanese would be amazing, and no one would ever shut up about it. So for two foreigners to speak English would be unremarkable. However, if they were seen as being Japanese and speaking fluent English, that would indeed be amazing. But then they have blonde hair, so then it’s not amazing, because they’re foreigners. Ah, wacky anime.

      I guess, bottom line, is that all of the interactions in this anime seem wildly contrived. Pretty much nobody acts or reacts the way people do in real life. But I guess that’s why it’s a cartoon, huh. Still, pretty interesting.

      1. Ya know,

        The Japanese government has supposedly been involved in supporting certain Anime/Manga behind the scenes. Since Abe has taken the helm, they’ve been rumored to push several anime about young girls becoming involved in the military into the TV schedule (to try and get more female participation in the JSDF possibly); two Brothers going into Space through the NASA astronaut program (the artists were sent over to the states and given a personal tour through all the NASA facilities) – to get more support for Japan’s involvement in Space activities possibly; and the Japanese National Tourism Organization (JNTO) sponsored this Anime “Kiniro Mosaic” on foreigners studying in Japan… to get the kids to think it was cool maybe? Hmmmm!

        1. I love conspiracy theories. There does seem to be an increase in nationalism as of late, including interest in the SDF and space programs. Whether the government’s behind it, or whether it just reflects a change in societal attitudes is the question. Along the same lines, I could see how foreigners wanting to come to Japan could play into that, with a bit of imagination.

  7. I don’t know, but I have the feeling that was too much information at once.
    Or maybe my brain has already melted due to this heat!

    I doubt it makes any difference if you turn on the heater or the cooler these days. Even the heater should make your room cooler. My kitchen has a set temperature of 35°C. It’s really bad this year, isn’t it?

    I hate fruit flies. I try to keep everything closed, clean and whatnot, but I do sometimes get them.
    Along with all the other critters: spider, mosquitoes, bats, frogs, centipedes, roaches, mice, bees, hornets, flies ….. and I’m sure I forgot quite a bit …. and there’s probably even more – I just don’t know about it – and I doubt I want to! *g*

    And don’t get me started about the “trash system” here in Japan. I guess by now I could write a book about it.
    Luckily my new place is not as strict about it. T_T

    1. Heh, you should have seen what I wrote initially, before I edited out all the scary details! It was a lot worse!

      Yeah, this year is hot . . . and it’s getting a lot of press in the news . . . but I dunno, I thought last year was hotter. Maybe I’m just getting used to it? Like, I’m only showering three times a day, instead of four. It’s the incremental improvements that matter.

      1. Lol seems it. Some people just attract crazy stuff. I’m hoping to be able to go and teach in Japan after I finish up college. Hopefully it’s eventful like this

        1. Go to Tokyo and craziness is pretty much guaranteed to find you. On the other hand, if you’re out in some rice field, then maybe not so much.

          But you know, be careful what you wish for.

  8. This is like four different posts in one. Quadruple the fun!

    I hear you on the low “stuff”. We have one of those dangly chandeliers in the kitchen that dates from the bubble period. When I’m not hunching over, it drapes nicely over my head which is sort of disgusting considering how often is has been cleaned. It’ll be interesting to watch what happens with the current generation of kids who tend to be pretty tall….some of them even without wearing shoes.

    Have you considered home brewing? It seems like it might be a more efficient way to utilize your produce? Its got a bit of a cult following and is growing rapidly. Might be something to think about and create some supplemental income. And it could probably be one more thing you should “never do in Japan”.

    1. I love the idea of creating my own booze, except that it resembles cooking, which resembles work, which makes me thirsty and so just thinking about it makes me run down to the convenience store for booze that somebody else has already put in a can just for me. So it’s kind of an inescapable spiral, I’m afraid. But it’s a good idea. Brewing moonshine strikes me as the perfect retirement activity.

  9. Ken,

    Heard in the news lately about the Tokyo police mistreating foreigners and botching investigations into crimes committed against them in Tokyo. Two of the cases I read about were English teachers in Japan.

    You be careful out there Ken and don’t run into any more Yakuza and stay away from strange festivals. Don’t drink to excess – wait… I guess that’s too much to ask… OK, then at least try not to do it in public by yourself and stay safe! We can’t have any of that kind of craziness getting in the way of your new book now, can we! I’m really looking forward to reading it one day!

    1. Thanks, Bud. I try pretty hard to stay on the right side of the law. Well, not that hard, but still, except for blowing a stop sign on my motorbike and falling asleep with a bottle of wine in the park the other day, I figure I’m pretty safe. Probably better off than I’d be in the U.S., actually. The only difference being that if I messed up in the U.S., they wouldn’t deport me to Japan. Actually, that might be kind of a plan . . .

  10. Hey Ken!

    Is it okay to pick your nose in public in Japan? Or is it proper Japanese etiquette to let another Japanese pick your nose for you?

    1. Well, you know, the Japanese are all about reciprocity.

      That being said, for all the propaganda about Japanese manners, it’s often surprising what people do in public, including that.

  11. Something similar happened to me in Japan, but rather than potatoes, it was rice. That I left in the rice cooker by mistake before leaving the country for a month. In July.

    Taking toxic waste to the next level by throwing away toxic waste ELECTRONICS. Eek.

    1. Gaaaa…that can’t have been good. Although it is surprisingly easy to do that. I mean, the cooker looks exactly the same whether there’s rice in it or not. There should be a flag, like a mailbox or something. I think it’s a design issue, thus not your fault.

  12. Love your posts. Found your site recent and have been enjoying it immensely. I’m living in Tokyo and although I’m still new here, I can already relate to many things you write about.

    The different slippers system is one of the best things I’ve seen in all my life! It seriously would have never occurred to me to have a different pair for each room of my apartment. Thank god the Japanese have straightened me out. I feel like I was living in a cave all these years. But now! instead of one simple multipurpose pair, I gladly have my 3 pairs of slippers, color-coded mind you, to correspond to each room.

    The blue ones are for the bathroom. (Get it, B for blue and bath)
    And then there are the blue ones I keep especially for the bedroom.
    Then those blue ones for the balco… wait a minute… Ah well, I guess it’s the same pair after all.

    1. Six blue slippers all color coded according to usage, that’s brilliant. Next you should work on using different chopsticks according to the seasons of the year, blue for winter, green for spring, you get the idea. On equinox days you can mix and match. See, always so much to look forward to, living in Japan.

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