Japanese Customs

“Stop that,” she said. “Sit still. You want people to think you’re a better person, don’t you?”

This is me, learning not to do sewing machine leg from Yasuko, my girlfriend.

“Better than whom?” I asked.

Well, Yasuko was crazy, so whatever. But she was also right. Not moving one’s limbs is actually a thing in Japan.

Next, I learned that you shouldn’t wear cologne from my girlfriend Makiko.

I’d worn cologne every day for years. Who doesn’t like the bracing scent of Old Spice? Not Japanese people, apparently, although nobody said a word. So I was beginning to think Makiko was crazy too. But it turns out that, yeah, she was also right. Japanese folks rarely wear fragrances, and like smoking, once you stop doing it, you notice just how offensive it is. Contrary to all logic, nobody wanted to smell my sweet, sweet body. Go figure.

From my girlfriend Ai-chan, I learned you’re not supposed to blow your nose in public.

“You don’t say,” I went ahead and said, stuffing a used napkin deep into my jacket pocket.

And from my girlfriend Misa, I was schooled on the fact that I shouldn’t chew gum while talking.

“Got it,” I said, and spit out a wad of Juicy Fruit.

“Now put it back in the wrapper,” she instructed.

“Yes m’am.”

“And throw it away.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

Japanese Customs

I’m sure thankful to all the Japanese women who’ve worked together over the years to make me the better person I am today. Although the whole thing reminds me a bit of fourth grade, when Kurtis Mann and I got hot dogs in the school cafeteria.

“You don’t put ketchup on a hot dog!” he said.

“But I like ketchup,” I countered.

“What are you, Ken, some kinda faggot?” he replied.

You really can’t argue with that chain of logic. And so I kept my predilections closeted, and only indulged them at home, with like-minded friends. I can only hope that someday the world will accept me for the ketchup-loving faggot I was born. Anyway, Lady Gaga understands.

How hot dogs and Lady Gaga relate to Japanese customs, God only knows, but uh, hey, isn’t that AKB48 over there?

How to Study Japanese

So imagine my surprise when last weekend, I found myself sitting next to a white guy studying Japanese at Starbucks. Okay, that’s not the surprising part. Every white guy studies Japanese at Starbucks. What made this notable was the fact that he was chewing gum, wearing cologne, and blowing his nose, all while furiously powering an invisible loom.

And I was like, “Excuse me, but it won’t do you any good to study the language if you’re a walking collection of social offenses.” But of course I didn’t really say that, because I’m Japanese. And plus he was a pretty huge dude.

Japanese Manners

Now, Japanese people aren’t polite by any means. Visitors to Japan have a strange tendency to mistake custom for courtesy. Bowing isn’t polite any more than shaking hands is friendly. Which is to say that sometimes it is, and sometimes you hate the mofo but do it anyway, because that’s just what you do.

Stay in Japan long enough and you’ll see grannies shoving their way onto trains, pitching handbags like horseshoes to claim seats. Pass out drunk in the street? Hey, no problem, provided it’s the holiday season, one of a dozen yearly festivals, or any weekend. Okay, maybe the occasional weekday as well. Anyway, your polite friends will ensure your safety by promptly abandoning your ass on the sidewalk.

Or you might think that, in a country rife with influenza, covering your mouth when you cough would just be basic hygiene, but good luck with that, Jonas Salk. And good luck trying to point out the nonsensical profiling that results in Spanish people getting handed the English menu at El Borracho, while Korean folks get the Japanese menu at the Golden Dragon.

But okay, it’s “their” country. We just work, live, and die here. Whatever. Ken Seeroi’s 2017 resolution is to let more stuff go. That, and to drink less. My favorite resolutions are the ones I can recycle from year to year.

Either way, and unfortunately, it seems you can forget about following Japanese customs, politeness, or trying to fit in. Not because they aren’t valuable or important. They absolutely are. But because they’re being made irrelevant, washed away by a recent tsunami overrunning Japan’s shores. You’ve probably already seen the signs, or can guess what it is. But let’s wait till next time to face that dark wave.

48 Replies to “Japanese Customs”

    1. Heh, I’ll never forget the time I was lining up to get on a plane, keeping a normal distance between myself and the person in front of me, when this old Japanese lady came and inserted herself right in front of me. She was like, “first!” but all I could think was, You do understand everybody’s got an assigned seat, right?

      1. Just piggybacking off of your comment about planes.. I’m always so confused as to why Japanese people are in such a rush to get off of the airplane after it lands. Right when the seat belt sign turns off, everyone rushes to stand up and claim their space in the aisle. We’re all going to the same place people!

        1. And yet they sit calmly for 10 minutes through the credits at the end of every movie. It’s a strange country, what can you say?

  1. Anyhow, nothing annoys me more than the “don’t blow your nose in public” thing. How’s that not okay, but sniffing loudly with all that disguising snot is totally fine!? It offends me. It offends my Gaijin sensibilities to great lengths, but I guess I have developed the custom of smiling yellowishly, keeping calm and carrying on…

    But hey it could be worse, if the Great Courses series on cultures around the world is to be believed, belching is totally cool in China 😮

  2. You got me at “Every white guy studies Japanese at Starbucks” 😀 When i am in Japan i often did exactly that 😀
    Since im regualary there for holiday i also got rid of the custom of wearing cologne o.O
    On the other hand myjJapanese wife finally enjoys to blow her nose in public wihtout beeing ashamed since we not life in Japan 😀

  3. Hello Ken,

    I love reading your posts, they really do a lot towards brightening up my work day. I wanted to bring up something in regard to the stereotyping of foreigners in Japan. From my perspective many of the people who do find their way to Japan as tourists or for longer stays have an expectation of how the Japanese as a culture behave. Is it so wrong that the Japanese themselves have this same categorization of people based on appearance?

    I can absolutely understand your frustrations with not being viewed as Japanese, but at the same time you must be aware most of your posts topics are touching on the fact that the Japanese act “Japanese” just as the Japanese themselves see foreigners as being “foreign”

    Maybe that is a sign that you are officially Japanese yourself.

    Note: In absolutely no way am I trying to criticize you in anyway. It is such a complex situation and I find myself immensely curious, that is all.

    Thanks for being awesome,


  4. Ken you are such a ladykiller bro.

    Been binge reading your stuff at work all day, and hoping passing colleagues think I’m reading tech articles.

    So men don’t wear cologne, but do chicks in Japan wear perfume? It’d be a shame if not, that’s like 30% of the charm of a female specimen.

    1. Except for on dates and in nightclubs, almost never. You really don’t want to ride a train with a hunded perfume-drenched individuals.

        1. Ugh, no. Your entire goal is to not smell. This should not be a major challenge.

          Sweat = bad. Cologne = bad. Sweat + cologne and I’m gonna shove you off the train myself.

            1. A certain amount of stank can’t be helped. We just pack too many people into too tight of a space. For that reason, the nation of Japan thanks you for showering twice a day, using unscented deodorant, and wearing clean clothes. And for putting a cork in your Axe Body Spray.

  5. That whole “do not blow your nose in public” thing is totally a myth in my experience… I heard it before I came to Japan as well, only to find Japanese people blowing their noses next to me in ramen restaurants and izakayas, on trains, in parks… and I think that just about covers all the places that exist in Japan. I never saw people doing this back in the USA. but as far as I can tell, it’s treated totally normally here. Maybe Kansai is just really weird.

      1. It’s not a Kansai thing; it’s an adult/child thing.

        We frequently tell children not to do things that we ourselves do: smoke, drink, swear, lie, put elbows on the table. Japanese people say similar things when they assume you don’t know. A whole lot of the “Japanese rules of Etiquette” are pointed out simply because you look “foreign.” In a sense, you’re thought of as a child. If you were from China or Korea, they wouldn’t say as much.

        Of course, nobody wants you to produce volumes of nose snot, but adults sometimes let politeness take a backseat to comfort. Well, maybe a bit more in Kansai.

        1. I always figure that a discrete nose blow (step out into the hall, or at least turn away from the other people) is less offensive than sitting there slurping snot all day long. Nobody ever gives me a sideways glance or anything, but then again, everybody else is making disgusting slurping noises.

          Actually, I live in the countryside where the men wear coveralls for all occasions. If I am outside, I do the farmer-style nose blow (no tissue, just let it fly).

  6. Hey Ken, Kaan here

    I wanted to do a work and travel in Japan after school and im excited about it. Is that possible in Japan and if yes, where ?

    Cheers ^^

    1. The first step would be to check and see if you can get a 1-year visa to work abroad. Some countries (such as members of the British Commonwealth, I believe) have such an arrangement with Japan. If you can get that, then you’d have a range of jobs to choose from.

  7. Don’t forget about public urination. As an Englishman of my acquaintance once commented about Japanese customs, “you can piss in the high street, but god forbid somebody should see you blow your nose.”

    1. Hah. Thus far I haven’t met anyone here for that reason. Although “Trump’s President, therefore I’ll move to Japan” might have a feel-good ring to it, I’m not sure the logic really holds up.

    2. If your goal is to get away from a country with a crazy, right-wing, racist, sexist maniac for a leader, then moving to Japan will NOT help you with that at all. I see this on Facebook from time to time; one minute posting anti-Trump stuff, the next some feel-good Japan Inc. propaganda that totally misses the point that Japan is a very bigoted, right-wing, backwards society.

  8. You may not be able to date all the girls in Japan but I do admire your effort. Keep it up, and you will master all the Japanese custom

  9. Hey man. Just wanted to say I’ve been silently following you for ages and I love your writing and sense of humour. Keep it up! This funny little country does fascinate me so.

    But wow, not even deodorant over there? Doesn’t the shitty BO overpower on trains?

    1. Whoa, no, we’ve got deodorant. Can’t speak for everyone in this country, but I certainly wear it every day. You can buy big, silver cans of unscented deodorant in any drug store.

      And thanks for commenting too, by the way.

  10. I have the same experience about learning those ways of living, but with Korean wife. She enforced those ways of living in my home country, where those are not even considered bad manners. I had to adjust my ways to make my life liveable. Koreans are however not so strict about perfumes, but they don’t even appear polite enforcing their ways. If you do something wrong, you will hear about it right away and sometimes even in a way that makes you feel very embarrassed.

    1. That sounds familiar. Korean people seem clearly more outspoken than Japanese folks in public. In private though, I’ve often found Japanese people to be quite direct, diving in to subjects (such as physical appearance) that Americans would only broach very cautiously. They can have a surprising lack of subtlety.

  11. Hi Ken, I’ve just hit that donate button and bought you a beer (or possibly more than one beer at Japanese prices). I’d given up checking this blog a few months ago due to the lack of updates, but it looks like you’re back at “work” now, so I’m sending positive reinforcements. I hope lots of other people do the same 😉 I just hope the extra beer doesn’t take away too much valuable writing time.

    Recently a few people have been telling me to listen to This is Water https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8CrOL-ydFMI It’s nothing to do with Japan, but the middle section describes a shopping trip in America and makes me think maybe there are some good reasons to live in Japan after all…

    Keep up the good work, and I can’t wait to read your description of that “dark wave”, whatever it is.

    1. Man, thanks. That’ll buy a whole six-pack of malt liquor tallboys. I’ll get started on that “dark wave” article now. Thanks for your patience while I hunt and peck as fast as I can.

      p.s. Agh, but the video—it compels me to put off writing for another 22 minutes. As if the entire internet wasn’t distracting enough already. But thanks for that too.

      1. Too many people here in Australia are obsessed with craft beers. Why buy six beers when you can buy one really expensive beer? Glad to hear you’re getting good value for money.

        1. You know, I used to drink piles of craft beers back in the States. But since moving to Japan, I think my taste buds have changed. Whenever I go back to the U.S., everything—all the food and drink—tastes super salty and super sweet. Microbrew beers in particular are just unbearably sweet. I don’t mind a Guinness once in a while just to change things up, but I really gotta say that I prefer Japanese beer, even malt liquor, to anything from overseas.

          I don’t think many foreign people share this opinion, however.

            1. Sadly, the only Australian beer that comes to my mind is Foster’s. I haven’t had one in years, but perhaps it was closer to the Japanese-beer end of things.

              That being said, I’d hasten to add that American beers have changed over the years, from light and pissy to sweet and heavy. It feels like the American brewers just gave up trying to make a simple beer, and decided to just pollute the entire market with sugar.

  12. I wanna take a guess and say this “Dark Wave” is foreign cultural influence, due to the shrinking population and growing amount of Gaijin. Am I close or not?

    Kami-sama knows Japan’s work culture could learn from other countries…

    1. There’s certainly no shortage of foreign people here. You can’t throw a rock without hitting someone from another country. Which reminds me, I wish people’d stop throwing rocks at me.

      But that’s not it.

      All will be revealed next weekend.

  13. I don’t understand why people want to smell nice. Of course not smelling bad is important, but that is simply mean washing everyday and wearing clean clothes. Why do you want to give everyone around you a nice pleasant smell everywhere you go?

    There’s nothing better hugging a woman and burying your nose in her neck and smelling a lovely perfume warmed by her body. But sitting next to some random person on the train and having to endure a cloud of perfume is annoying, especially during hay-fever season. We’re not dogs, I don’t need to smell you.

  14. Hi Ken. I love your blog. Your updates are a perpetual source of joy for those lucky enough to have stumbled upon your website.

    I used to have this friend who taught English over in Nagoya for 2 years. After an initial period of trying to assimilate into Japanese culture, he took a different approach and began going out of his way to confound and confuse his Japanese acquaintances. This included taking off all of his clothes and rolling around in dirt to “get clean”, drinking his own urine, chasing squirrels, and carrying a rubber chicken wherever he went. I always found his antics entertaining until I learned he’d developed mental health issues. Yeah, sort of a sad story, but that was over 15 years ago now, and I suppose I’ve always wondered whether he cracked due to social pressures on foreigners in Japan. I have never lived in Japan myself, but had actually planned on joining my friend and becoming an English teacher before my career took a different path.

    1. I’ve never seen anyone completely lose their marbles, but I’d venture to say that depression, and just general weirdness, is pretty common among the foreign population.

      I guess that should come as no surprise. I mean, lots of folks move here with over-the-moon expectations, experience a few months of initial elation, and then reality sets in. Working for low wages and being socially isolated in a foreign country can really do your head in. Not that I’d know or anything.

  15. Last time I was in Japan I blew my nose on a crowded train and some of my friends left a couple of beer cans under the seat. Sorry man I think I ruined Japan :(.

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