What I’ve Learned About Japanese Customs

It rained last week. And as I walked into the lobby of my Japanese office building, there was my coworker in front of me, the strawberry-blonde gal who speaks pretty good Japanese. And perhaps because she’d mostly mastered the language, it was surprising to note she’d failed to successfully navigate the entire minefield of Japanese customs: she hadn’t wrapped up her umbrella. You know that little strap you wind around to hold the umbrella closed? Yeah, she hadn’t done that. This is the Japanese equivalent of not zipping up your fly.

Sure, it was just a minor oversight, but that’s the point. Because in this country, every minor thing’s somehow a major thing. I’m trying to think of a way to put this nicely, but um, Japan’s anal as fuck. Yeah, really no way to spruce up that phrase.

The Eraser Incident

I first discovered this when my old girlfriend and I visited two of her friends at their apartment. After dinner, I jotted down some Japanese words I was trying to remember, and then at one point erased one of the words. Suddenly, the entire conversation stopped and they all gazed at me in horror.

“What?” I said.

“E-e-eraser pieces on the floor!” my girlfriend stammered, in the exact same tone an American would say, “You just backed yer car over ma dawg!”

Thus commenced five minutes of us attempting to pick microscopic eraser sweepings from the floor while deeply apologizing.

Chopsticks on the First Date

So what I’ve learned about Japanese customs is that small things matter a disproportionate amount. Take this first date I went on with a rather plain-looking Japanese girl. Actually, I’d remembered her as a whole lot more attractive when I met her at a Tokyo networking event, but then maybe I’d had a few cocktails.

Anyway, I’d dressed nicely, even taken a shower, made a reservation at this fancy restaurant, and just as we were about to commence with dinner, she said,

“You know, that’s not how you’re supposed to pick up chopsticks.”

Then she proceeded with detailed instructions. Apparently, Ken Seeroi shouldn’t just grab at them like a savage and start eating. Oh no, he’s to gently grasp the little sticks with his right paw in an overhand fashion, then rest them briefly on the left paw as he switches to an underhand grip. At which point I believe you’re free to begin shoveling food into your pie hole.

This served to underscore two points. The first, that I’d never be able to do even simple things right; and second, that my date was a little bitch. Sorry, I really gotta work on speaking more delicately. Suffice to say she was Japanese.

Japanese Customs no one Tells you About

Over the years, I’ve come to learn so many fascinating things about Japan. That when you visit a house or office in the winter, you take off your coat outdoors. That when you approach the cashier at a store, you have your money out and ready, and keep your bills neat and crisp rather than just folded and stuffed into your jeans. That in the summer, you don’t go outside without a shirt on, even on your own balcony. That you also don’t talk on the phone on said balcony for fear of disturbing your neighbors. And while you’re at it forget about ever listening to your stereo at volume.

Everyone knows that when you set the table, the rice goes on the left. Unless you’re eating curry and then perhaps it goes on the right. That if you pour soy sauce into a dish, you drip in an amount appropriate for a newborn infant. That if you’re a male visitor to someone’s home, you sit to pee to avoid splashing. Come to think of it, that likely applies to women as well. That if you use the shower, you meticulously pick up any stray hairs afterward. And that when you leave, you keep on waving Bye until the person’s out of sight.

The Endless List of Japanese Customs

There’s no end to the spoken and unspoken Japanese customs. You don’t set your purse or bag on the ground. Instead, you sit with it uncomfortably behind you on the chair. Before you throw away a plastic bottle, you remove the cap and rip off the label. After lunch, you brush your teeth, using an up-and-down motion. Before you go to bed, you take a shower. After you use the toilet, you wash your bum. You don’t snack at your desk. You never chew gum and you never whistle, except at festivals. You don’t smile for photos and cover your mouth when you laugh. And don’t laugh too much. In public, try to affect a facial expression somewhere between depressed and pissed off. By now, that shouldn’t be too hard to accomplish.

Really, an Endless List

You clean your dog’s paws before you bring little Hachi-chan into the house. If you have a wheelchair, you wipe off the wheels. You never wear cologne, perfume, or use scented hair products. You wash your sneakers but not your jeans. You take off your sunglasses when you greet someone, and your hat when you bow. You don’t honk when you drive, but cheerfully let people cut you off. You don’t talk on a cell phone indoors in public, and that goes double for the train. You don’t run to catch that train, but you can run to the station with your arms down like a zombie, particularly if it’s the last train.

Wow, You’re Really Japanese

Now, do all Japanese people follow all rules? Of course not. Japan’s a big nation with a lot of different people. But most folks know there’s a proper way to eat grapes, peel tangerines, and slice onions. Those’d be the Japanese ways, of course, not your freaky foreign ways. Japanese customs dictate a right and wrong way to stand, sit in a chair, ride an elevator, clap your hands, tie your shoes, and pour a beer.

Japanese customs don’t dictate following any one rule in particular. Rather, you need to be painfully aware of all rules and every thing. Every tiny, ridiculously unimportant thing. Heh, and it used to be that when people said, “Wow, Seeroi Sensei, you’re really Japanese,” I thought it was a compliment. These days, I’m not so sure. I wish I wasn’t shocked by my coworker’s umbrella, her inappropriate blouse, and the small tattoo on her back. Apparently, being Japanese is like eating potato chips, which of course, there’s a correct way to do too. Yeah, you really don’t want to be Japanese. ‘Cause once you start, it’s mighty hard to stop.

105 Replies to “What I’ve Learned About Japanese Customs”

  1. Dear Seeroi-san,

    it seems like your permanent residency card was well deserved, as you clearly display the traits of an attentive person – which probably makes you, in the eyes of the Japanese, a human being instead of a troglodyte.

    That being said, I wasn’t too surprised by many of the customs you mentioned. But that’s probably because I’m Gerrmann, and ve haf ourr ways, too. Don’t mention the war, for sure.

    The chopstick incidence probably is a fine example of merely jerkish behaviour aggrandized as “Japanese”. But sitting down for a pee? When you come to Germany you’d see a lot of stickers in toilets asking you to behave just like this. Just do an image search for “im Sitzen pinkeln” and you’ll get the idea. Also, cleaning your pet outside instead of distributing dust all in your host’s home is quite an obvious matter of courtesy, isn’t it? And to stand on your balcony not wearing a shirt may be a habit of the hoi polloi, but surely not of a person of rank, is it?

    The eraser incident would have got me, too. But then again I caused instant paleness of my US colleagues when I asked to be handed a rubber – which was the term I was taught in school. So, erasers are probably difficult anyway.

    It’s not your fault not to know the subtleties of a foreign culture, but as long as you are making an effort you should be ok. Or do you expect your colleagues to think differently?

    Best regards,

    P.S.: Glad to read a new blog entry!

    1. Thanks for the comment. Yeah, much of this article is based on experiences that happened over several years. By now I’ve pretty well internalized the customs of Japan, to the point that visiting the U.S. is a massive culture shock. Things are only strange until they’re not any more.

  2. Women must wear a blouse that does not expose their shoulders when attending a wedding.

    When attending a wedding money must be given as a present, but it cannot be a single bill, two bills or creased in anyway. The bills must be in denominations of ¥10,000.

    When attending a business meeting the least important person must sit closest to the door. The guests must sit on the side of the table that is opposite the door.

    1. I have to say, I have a lot of business meetings, and I rarely see anyone who cares at all about those rules. Except my old boss. I this these are more a thing older people care about.

    2. Maybe it was a girlfriend that told you that? It wouldn’t be the first time someone tried to curate the world around themselves because they disagreed with something or didn’t want to be challenged on some level. I had a girlfriend try to tell me profanity didn’t exist in Japan because she didn’t like to hear profanity. Profanity exists in Japan.

  3. that reminds me of that time when I was scolded for half an hour by my supervisor for not sitting properly at the desk… apparently, I was slouching too much. and i was not even working with or anywhere near clients!

    1. In the past, my Japanese boss spent half an hour telling me what a worthless piece of shit I was, because I’d chewed gum in front of a student. The horror. So thanks, now I feel better.

  4. Though I can’t argue there’s something alluring about living in organized society where people behave uniformly and predictably, there’s a lot of irrationality and arbitrariness when it comes to cultural norms. I had the fortune to grow up in a moderately diverse area and it was amusing (and sometimes confusing) to see very different cultures mix and, at times, clash. I guess that’s what fuels a common angst for descendants of immigrants, but I digress.

    You had people critique your toothbrushing though?

      1. Don’t forget the 45 degree angle. Otherwise dirt can’t be removed from the teeth… So said my Japanese dentist to his obviously misguided gaijin patient, whom has zero cavities.

  5. Nice post.
    Here are some things that will make someapeople frown, sometimes you will get a complaint and still i don’t see what’s wrong…
    Walking and eating on the street.
    Asking questions at the doctors office
    Being a man and wanting to go to the parents-teachers meetings
    Wanting to be in your son class pictures when there are only mothers
    Asking your boss why the tight deadline, because the stuff is not going to be needed for 2 weeks after that deadline
    Not wanting to work overtime for free
    Being a man and worrying about your kids ( the mother can worry but the father shouldn’t)

    1. All that sexist stuff needs to go away, and quickly. But walking and eating, eh, can’t say I’m a fan.

      I love your point about meeting deadlines. That’s a startling difference between Japanese and U.S. corporate culture. In the U.S., if we couldn’t meet a deadline…we’d just make a new deadline. Then we’d all go to happy hour and have a nice weekend. It’s not like someone’s waiting on a kidney transplant. But in Japan, for some reason, we have to make 100 color copies of a report no one’s going to read, and they have to be done by Monday or the universe will explode. So everyone works until midnight, then comes in over the weekend.

      And I’m like, uuh, why don’t we just set more reasonable deadlines? Because every deadline’s so tight you’re guaranteed to miss it, and that’s why you’re always working overtime. But I guess that’s the Japanese culture we all know and love.

      1. Oh, don’t get me started about deadlines and overtime. I tell everybody at work that I am perfectly willing to work overtime when necessary. If there is an emergency – something that requires immediate attention – I will stay at the office all night if I have to.

        Guess how often something comes up that is so urgent it can’t wait until tomorrow. Let me think… maybe two or three times in the eight years I have been at this particular job.

        My coworkers just don’t know how to prioritize.

        1. Well well, Weilong Wang!

          I miss Mountain Home Japan. The distillation of insight you posted there was a real Godsend for anyone else trying to navigate the arbitrariness of this fine and often-frustrating culture.

          And I’ve just learned that arbitrariness is actually a real word.

          Hope to see more from you.

  6. Nice one Ken especially about the soy sauce newborn gag. Though as a fellow long-term resident it’s the first time I’ve heard not to wash your jeans!? I’d also add leaving any remnant soap suds on dishes is a major faux pas.

  7. Hey Ken.
    I dare you,on a nice warm sunny day,to walk bare footed into your local grocery store.I used to do it all the time,ahh the commotion.

  8. If you eat using chopsticks with your right hand you must keep your left hand on the table, and not rest it under the table, and that hand is lightly closed. J-wife and I love to catch each other out. The perfect wind up.

    1. You and your wife are definitely behaving as Japanese folks, in paying attention that which people of other nations wouldn’t even bother thinking about.

      The rule sounds good in theory; I like it. Probably applies to eating with a fork as well. But outside of semi-formal situations, I don’t see people really paying it much mind. Kind of the Japanese version of keeping your elbows off the table.

      1. “Kind of the Japanese version of keeping your elbows off the table” Well, Ken Sensei, it’s funny you should mention that.
        I was sat athe dining table watching Youtube videos about Japan, drinking wine, when I fantasized out aloud to J-Wife that one day when we finally returned to Japan, I wanted to enter the Ogasawara Ryu and study Reigi.
        J-wife, in her usual laconic tone replied, “Well, you can start……by taking your elbows off the table”.
        “Yes dear, of course dear”.

        1. And people wonder why there’s so much stress-related illness in this country. I’m pretty sure the elbows-on-table rule is suspended the minute a YouTube video starts.

  9. I’m traveling here and I had a Japanese mom, so I can sorta fit in. I was just telling some people who left a cell phone in a cab that the number of the cab has to be EXACTLY what they’re expecting or the company won’t understand what you’re talking about. Funny how I just had the anal retentive discussion.

    Usually when I get worried about this kind of thing I either let my cousins yell at me about what I’m doing wrong, or I just have a beer and stop worrying so much.

    Hell, I had to fill out my mom’s death certificate at the consulate IN HANDWRITTEN KANJI and I haven’t had to write kanji besides my name since 1991 when I left after five years in Japan. And that wasn’t as difficult as telling the Japan Pension Bureau to stop sending her money. That was a complete ordeal.

    Sometimes my engineer brain takes over and I want to argue the nonsense. Fortunately, there’s always beer. I know a few brewers in Japan and they’re a cheery lot.

    1. What I like is when I have to hanko something, and I stamp it just a little bit wrong. That happens about 30 percent of the time. So then we’ve got to cross out the hanko, then try it again. And maybe again. I’d like to think it’s an inherent flaw in using personal seals, but then I’ve also been told my signature wasn’t clear enough, so then we had to cross it out and rewrite that too. Japan’s no place for people with bad handwriting.

  10. “That in the summer, you don’t go outside without a shirt on, even on your own balcony”
    I have seen someone making an exception to this rule. While staying on my own balcony and just staring mindlessly I have seen someone going out on the balcony across the street. Of course it caught my attention and I have seen a young Japanese woman, completely naked, going out to take her laundry. She seemed mortified after noticing me and dissappeared in her apartment without taking any single piece of now dry clothes. I hope I didn’t scare her too much but since I’m a woman it shouldn’t be as traumatizing as it could be.

    1. Therein lies the gap between the rule and the reality. What people say you should do, and what they actually do, are often two very different things. Thanks for the anecdotes.

    2. I always go on my balcony to do laundry with no shirt on. Just shorts. It’s never been an issue and it’s my balcony so I can do what I want.

  11. Let me be a bitch for a second. “That when you approach the cashier at a store, you have your money out and ready” – oh how I value this, it seems. Used to happen everywhere with my last ex, but it was especially upsetting when we are waiting in a line for her to buy a bus ticket or recharge her city transport card. Only when she is at the counter she starts opening her bag, to find her wallet. Then she has to get to the card and the money. And when I say we are waiting on a line, of course there are people behind us waiting too. As a bonus, we might miss the next subway train and have to wait for 10+ minutes. Just because for the 10+ minutes that we were waiting on the line, she couldn’t get her shit ready. When I would tell her to start getting her stuff ready, as politely as I can, she would get pissy on me and then my nerves would start cracking about how inconsiderate she is of everyone else, a lot of the time.
    Right, sorry for babbling…

    1. I feel ya. Once you’re cognizant of a custom like that, it’s maddening to see others not follow it. And Japan’s full that stuff—minor things that make everything run smoother for everyone. The society is well-run and orderly because everybody’s following the same rules. But there are a lot of rules.

  12. “I’m trying to think of a way to put this nicely, but um, Japan’s anal as fuck.”

    Yep, I always used to say that. And Japanese – almost – never got my reference to Freudian psychology.

    Over the years I became quite adept at observing all the unwritten rules in my daily life in Japan. It really is just a certain “mindful” mindset.
    That being said, I flagrantly ignored those rules that just don’t make any sense (I called them “rules for rules sake”) and if any Japanese dared to comment I would give them the good old shakedown. (It helps to be really good at Japanese.)

    I miss the “mindful” mindset of Japanese here in Germany sometimes. I suspect it’s even worse when going to the US. (Too many people with a FU atttitude.)

    Another thought: While in Japan I sometimes thought about “cultural literacy”. What I mean by is this:

    During the initial seven years I lived in Japan I worked as a temp. worker, received my master’s degree, worked in IT, translation, teaching …
    Especially in my first temp. worker contract (in a town hall) I suffered A LOT of flak for all kinds of things. Basically, despite speaking Japanese pretty well (I had passed JLPT 1 when coming to Japan already), I was just not fluent at how to “behave right”.

    When I started working full time at my last job while in Japan I was fluent both linguistically and culturally. (This position was in a large office room with all Japanese employees and me being the only foreigner. Suffice it so say it was not a very international environment at all.)
    And yet: I seem to have done very well as I was put in charge of an important project for the company (set up and run company online shop) as a team leader. And this after less than one year in the company.

    Sorry for being so long winded.
    What I want to say is: As a foreigner in Japan you really need a certain time of exposure to Japanese culture (like 3 years full time employment) to fully understand the “mindful mindset” and REALLY being fully accepted as a member of adult society. This is something that should be pounded into students of Japanese language IMO.

      1. Yeah, I second this.

        I suck at the Japanese language but I suck at the culture even harder. It’s a daily slapdown for doing something wrong that I didn’t quite understand yet again…. and once I’ve got the hang of whatever was the issue last week, I’ll be told off again for something completely different this week and so the cycle continues…

        Place Gyoza with the cooked part upwards…

        1. Heh yeah, like you wouldn’t want to cook gyoza on both sides. Nothing like a little rare pork. It’s right up there with chicken sashimi.

  13. You know how at the end of a meeting or a party or any sort of gathering of a small group, everybody stands up and leaves all at the same time? You can’t just get up and leave whenever you’re ready to. You have to sit there and wait until everybody is ready to go. Then there is this tense moment at the end where everybody wants to leave, but they are all looking at each other, trying to ascertain whether the others are ready to go. Then suddenly, on some subconscious cue, everybody stands up in unison and makes for the door.

    I’ve been around long enough that I know how to do that. Then I was around even longer, and now I don’t care anymore, so I just get up and leave when I want to.

  14. Most of the ‘rules’ in Japan are subsets of the Japanese categorical imperatives: “thou shalt not cause meiwaku (bother) to another” and “thou shalt not bring outside dirt inside”. I am generally OK with most of these rules as I can get behind the common goal of preserving a harmonious and clean society and I now find many customs back home to be a bit gross.

    That said, I think it should be stated that there are very different standards for men and women here. Japanese men can get away with all kinds of disgusting anti-social behavior that women can’t. But I have noticed younger men are becoming a lot more polite so there is hope.

    1. Japanese men fall into one of two categories: machismo and milquetoast. The milquetoast variety tend toward metrosexualism, or even asexualism, wearing trousers that end at the ankles, getting their hair coiffed at salons, and letting women (including their mothers) run things.

      The machismo males are more interesting, because it’s amazing to witness the lengths a five-foot-six guy will go to trying to impress others. These include habits such as shoveling rice into one’s mouth like feeding coal to a locomotive, throwing trash on the ground, and showing off how much English they can speak.

      It’s worth noting that a subset of women seem bent on proving how macho they are, and they usually pull it off better than the men.

  15. I’m a little surprised that I’ve read all these comments and no one asked the most important question….what kind of tattoo did she have?

    1. Just a small bird with its wings outstretched. It was only surprising because it was visible. (What you do to the unseen parts of your body is your business.) I remember not too long ago when it wasn’t okay to have visible tattoos in the U.S., if you worked in a professional capacity. Suppose that’s changed now though.

      1. Yeah I don’t see many visible tattoos in a non-bar, barista, hipster environment…but I feel that it wouldn’t necessarily be frowned upon in the office…unless you were in a client facing capacity.

  16. Nice post. I’ve only been in Tokyo for around 3 months now but I feel like I’ve already experienced some of what’s been mentioned. Everyone is fairly relaxed until they see their triggering rule being violated. I also see myself noticing when other people don’t follow certain ones.

    None of it particularly bothers me but it’s like no amount of preparation or study you do is enough because until you live here you can’t really grasp the full breadth of rules that exist.

    1. How are you enjoying Tokyo? I thought it was amazing, for about two weeks. After that, it was still pretty fun. Then later, it was just okay. And then I moved.

      As a general rule, it’s probably safe to assume that 100% of everything you’re doing is wrong. So even the stuff you’re doing today that you think is right, yeah, that’ll probably turn out to be wrong at some point.

      1. It’s a great place to live and I feel pretty comfortable. That said, Tokyo did have that “magic” when I was just travelling. However, after I’d already decided to make the move and started doing all the life admin especially after just arriving, I was quickly grounded in reality. As an example, it took like 3 hours to sign up for a phone number and Internet connection. Never experienced that in the US or Australia.

        1. Yeah, life admin’s kind of a pain. Fortunately, you don’t have to do it too too much.

          I felt like Tokyo would be an all-right spot if you could live near your workplace, and maybe somewhere with a bit of green. Commuting on crowded trains was pretty hellish. Then a massive nuclear-power-plant destroying earthquake and tsunami didn’t improve the situation much.

          How’s your commute?

          1. Yeah true, it is fairly minimal nowadays.

            Now that you mention it, I don’t remember seeing much green around and yeah, the earthquakes are a first for me. Hoping there’s no repeat of 2011.

            My commute is around 15 minutes by train and I’m usually able to avoid the worst of peak hour. Has your commute improved wherever you are now?

            1. “I felt like Tokyo would be an all-right spot if you could live near your workplace, and maybe somewhere with a bit of green. Commuting on crowded trains was pretty hellish. ”

              My thoughts exactly. I scoured Google maps for areas with enough greenery that would show up while zoomed out on the metropolis, and searched for apartments only in those areas. I settled in Minami-Senju right next to Shiori Park on the Sumida River, and now I feel like I can never live anywhere else unless I leave Tokyo completely. My commute is about an hour, but I almost never need to board a train before 10am on weekdays, so at least I’m not pressed balls to butt.

            2. Sorry, I forgot to reply to this comment.

              My commute is about 20 to 60 minutes these days, depending on where I’m working. Occasionally, I fly to different parts of Japan for work, so in that case I guess it’s a several-hour commute.

              A 15-minute commute in Tokyo? You’re probably in the top 1% of greatest commutes ever. You should be very happy with that.

  17. Great article Ken. Kudos for the last one too, so far the recipe variations have turned out great.
    Would you say there is one or more customs that you just refuse to partake in evan after your time spent in Japan?

    1. That’s a great question. Really, not many. I guess I don’t cough or sneeze without covering my mouth, so that’s one. But for the most part, I assume I’m just as Japanese as everybody else, and try to behave accordingly.

      In some ways, all the years I spent in Japanese schools (albeit as a teacher, rather than a student) provided a pretty great basic education in Japanese customs, manners, and ways of thinking.

  18. Hahaha, I’ve not been here long but I’ve experienced most of these things already, the rubber thing and dropping bits on the floor, left hand must be on the table while eating, etc.

    Last night there was a weird one though, I went and got a strong zero out of my fridge and then I thought “whoa! I should have some otsumami with this as well” and then began preparing some pickles and snacks for that… and I was entirely on my own for the entire evening, no Japanese people around to scold me. Then I realised… I could have just slammed the strong zero on its own and nobody would have been the wiser.

    1. But nope, ya gotta have snacks with your drinks. I believe that’s a law in several prefectures.

      And by extension, you must also make fun of “gaijin” for having drinks without food, in a tone that makes it clear you view them as savages.

      1. そうなんだべ

        Also it isn’t specifically a custom or anything but no matter how long you try and avoid the local dialect… it will get you in the end!

    2. Ha snacks with drinks is such an Asian thing. In North America we just hit the sauce only. Usually just beer and nothing else. 🙂

    1. Yep, if Japanese folks ever run out of rules, they just make up a few new ones. It’s a handy place like that.

      It’s worth considering why people here care so much about abiding by rules: fail to comply, and you’ll be smacked down. Japan runs on equal parts of fear and punishment.

      1. Very true Ken, very true.
        As opposed to the current Western ideal where everyone gets a participation trophy…

        I have a feeling that things should be somewhere in the middle, but I’m sure socially correct brigade will come to lynch me.

  19. Glad I’m a foreigner cause I follow very few of said “rules.” I can’t imagine why any foreigner would stress out about actually following most of these. If you find yourself following these then you might as well just become Japanese already.

    1. If you’re wearing pants, you’re following somebody’s rules.

      So might as well fit in with the society you’ve chosen to live in, is the way I figure it.

      1. At the least, if you develop deeper relationships in Japan it’ll be a problem for people you care about if you keep blowing off the “rules.” At this point, my wife is remiss to move back to Japan because she’d get the incessant chirping about us blowing these things off…heh ;p

        1. I hear that all the time from Japanese folks living overseas. Once they spend a few years living without all the rules, it’s hard to come back.

        2. I don’t have deep relationships with Japanese people so I really don’t have to follow any. Japanese people are extremely difficult to form meaningful bonds with. They have horrible communication and relationships even amongst themselves. So, guess I lucked out in not having to follow most of those dumb rules. I make my own rules.

          1. No matter what society you operate in (including online), you really have only two choices:

            Follow the rules, and everybody’ll think you’re tuned-in and polite; or

            don’t follow the rules, and everbody’ll think you’re either a simpleton or just a dick.

            So don’t follow rules, and let’s see how well this works out. Let’s take another free society, the U.S. When you’re done with dinner, leaving a tip is a dumb rule, so don’t do that. Just pay your bill and walk out of the restaurant. Shaking hands is pretty pointless and a bit unsanitary, so when you meet people, just leave them hanging. And when Christmas comes around, you can point out how wastefully capitalistic it is to exchange presents, and refuse to participate in the ritual.

            Alternately, you might consider what’s most beneficial. It costs very little to follow most rules, and the rewards are great. Follow them and you’ll be perceived as smarter and more polite than you actually are. People will be inclined to reciprocate when needed, and everybody needs help moving a couch at some point.

            You don’t have to follow the rules. But I doubt it’s going to benefit you.

            1. A perfect summary of how I feel and yet I act contrary to this.

              Most of the time I think the rule may be dumb, but I follow it anyway to just fit in and not make waves.

              Though I draw the line at Christmas, the kids get a present. Not my wife or I as we are functioning adults with access to cash and a credit card.

              1. Totally agree with the Christmas thing. I stopped getting presents when I finished elementary school. And I will do the same for my kid.

            2. Yup. That’s the thing. I don’t care if everyone around me thinks “the dumb foreigner”. If I wanted to become Japanese I’d have done it already. But who wants to be Japanese and subject themselves to such a restricted life. Not me. I’m a foreigner who isn’t in Japan forever and am contempt with that. So what’s the point.

            3. how much benefit do you think youll get from following japans countless rules, will you be promoted to slightly less of an outsider?

              1. That’d certainly be a strange reason for having good manners.

                Let’s say I’m invited to your birthday party, right? Well first of all, happy birthday. And then when I come to your party, I won’t show up empty handed. Not because it’d provide me some benefit, but simply because it’s the appropriate thing to do. And what does it cost me? So I get you a necktie or a bottle of wine or something. Hopefully you’re happy (because I have excellent taste in both ties and wine), and I’m happy, and that’s enough of a benefit.

                So whether I’m considered an outsider or not isn’t relevant. I’m still going to attempt to behave like a decent human being. But yeah, following the customs—or at least not acting like a clueless asshole—probably would go a long way to being accepted. Not that I always succeed but, eh, one does the best one can.

                You mention “countless rules,” but really they’re no more numerous than anywhere else. They just seem like a lot because they’re not your rules. Like, take America, please. There, the entire family and guests don’t all share the same bathwater. Why? I don’t know; just some weird American custom. And folks don’t slaver mayonnaise all over pizza. Weird, right? I know. And for some reason it’s not okay to sleep drunk on the sidewalk. Go figure. How’s a person supposed to navigate all those strange rules? It’s baffling.

                1. Oh come now ken, equating rules as being the same as manners and consideration of others is clearly incorrect, as for your analogy of giving gifts as birthday parties, I don’t see how something as universal as that sheds much light on the situation in japan a “country, (where) every minor thing’s somehow a major thing” (“Japan’s anal as fuck.”)

                  Picking up your chopsticks in a certain way, taking your coat off before entering a building, are these things considerate to others or merely just rules to reinforce group identity? Cuzz if it’s the latter, youre not allowed entry into the group anyway, no?

                  You say the rules in japan are “no more numerous than anywhere else” but in your article (which was a lot of fun btw) you mention over 30 trivial Japanese rules, and your conclusion; “Rather, you need to be painfully aware of all rules and everything. Every tiny, ridiculously unimportant thing.” does seem a bit at odds with it has no more rules “than everywhere else”…

                  Be that as it may, thank you for the reply and please keep writing…

                  1. And thank you for sharing your thoughts. You bring up some good points.

                    For me, it really depends on which set of glasses I’m looking through. When I’ve got on the American lenses, Japan seems insanely rule-bound and, yeah, anal as fuck. I usually write from that perspective, because I’m thinking in English and writing for people who are probably not Japanese.

                    But to be honest, most of the time I’ve got on the Japanese lenses. This helps keep me from bumping into things when I walk. And viewed from that perspective, it’s like Yeah, Japan generally makes sense. On the occasions I travel back to the U.S., it’s always, Holy shit, that place is crazy. I could easily write the same article about America. But if I try to discuss all the trivial and arbitrary rules that everybody cares so much about, you know, folks either don’t get it or they want to shoot me with one of their 30 personal firearms. Neither of which is a great outcome. So although I might feel like sitting down during the Star Spangled Banner, I stand and keep my ass quiet. Is it out of consideration, or just to be one with the group? I dunno, but either way I don’t need the trouble. I’m all, Yay America. You da greatest country on earf.

                    Bottom line is, the rules in Japan only seem fastidious or unreasonable so long as they’re exotic. The rules of your own country, well hell, those are just common sense.

                    1. Of course the possibility exists that your home country is extreme too, so the logic that if back home and where I live are both strange then everywhere is strange, may not apply… and yeah America, to a Brit/European like me, does seem pretty extreme, not with rules but that it appears prone to being in a state of perpetual hysteria, ie its constantly whipped up into a frenzy, making it prone to over reaction, and with an exaggerated focus on in-duh-vidualism at the expense of society as whole (among other things)

        3. Exactly. Even Japanese people hate their dumb rules. Most Japanese I know never return to Japan after living abroad for a few years and getting a taste of real freedom. Especially the young kids who move. Once you’ve experienced a western free country, Japan just can’t compete. Maybe if they didn’t have so many dumb rules the suicide rate wouldn’t be so high 😉

        4. My wife doesn’t want to go back to Japan either.
          Not sure if it’s just the rules – or social pressure as I would call it. But it definitely is a part of it.

          We may consider it when we’re old and the kids are out of the house. But even then … I don’t see it yet.

          1. Hmm, yeah that. It’s funny that foreign people want to move to Japan, when Japanese people who’ve left don’t want to return. There’s definitely an element of self-loathing in Japanese society. Something to consider.

            1. J-Wife doesn’t want to return to Japan permanently yet, partly because I haven’t finished renovating the bathroom and the kitchen. When we started the project, we metaphorically painted an eye on the Daruma. Now we are bound to finish the job and paint the second. “It will secure acrylic panels to the shower walls”.

  20. Yeah, we’re also thinking of going back when the kid’s off to college (maybe in Japan) and we have enough saved up where I don’t have to work as a salaryman…heh but yeah would depend on the state of things both there and here in the US…hopefully we can blow off a lot of the annoying rules as old people (but probably not, heh.)

    1. If I may say, I think it’s a mistake to move here and then try to avoid “the annoying rules.”

      This is in no way directed at you, by the way, but rather more to visitors in general. There are enough “foreigners” behaving poorly in Japan that somebody should really clue them in. Against all odds, guess that’s me. We need to recognize there are countless rules in every country, and that we’re already following them. I try not to fart too much on the first date; I don’t know why.

      So I don’t abide by rules for their own sake, but rather because they make sense. Why they exist isn’t always obvious, but there are usually reasons behind them, including:

      Safety: Don’t run for the train. Because Ken can run down the slippery stone stairs of the station like a gazelle, but the old guy I brush past is going to tumble and die.

      Social Order: Wait in a single line. Look, I’m a big guy. I can easily decide Screw waiting, I’m going to the front of this line. What’re you gonna do, fight me? But I also recognize the innate fairness of waiting one’s turn. There are countless examples of similar rules in Japan that boil down to one thing—that by cooperating rather than grubbing for our own little morsel, things work out better for everyone. When people throw you a birthday party, try not to eat the entire cake yourself.

      Politeness: I don’t talk on the phone at the dinner table, and I don’t blow my nose in the cloth napkin. Not because I don’t want to, but because I wouldn’t like it if somebody else did. I know this isn’t the same everywhere, but it’s something you get used to.

      Decency: Kind of related to “Politeness.” When Seeroi goes to the beach, he doesn’t wear a Speedo, although his buns are amazing. Nor do I show up at your wedding wearing Groucho Marx glasses and a dick nose. Because although hilarious, not everybody shares my sense of humor, so I’m going to try not acting like a 16 year-old, for once.

      Now that being said, it’s also worth considering that rules don’t matter nearly as much if you live way out in the inaka. Go to the rice fields, run shirtless, play your trumpet for all anybody cares. But if you live in an apartment block with neighbors, eh, then it’s just a question of how much you want everyone to hate you. Also, if you’re hanging out with people your own age, your own gender, or in your own space, then the group will sync up with its own rules. But what was amusing in your dorm room may not play so well at the office.

      So in Japan as elsewhere, it pays to, uh, pay attention, to get a clue. Behave like those around you and they might actually want to have you over for dinner a second time.

  21. I was referring to stuff like having to get omiyage when you go on a trip or the endless cycle of お歳暮, but your point is taken. I do think that after some time your enthusiasm and adherence to certain rules and customs wanes…willing to bet you don’t stick closely to all thing things your neighbors, coworkers, and friends do.

    1. Maybe more closely, just because it’s in my personality to focus on minutia, but whatever, it’s not a competition. I’m not trying to follow rules. I’m just doing what seems natural and reasonable, given the society in which I live.

      But neither do I go out of my way to break rules, which is a peculiarly American thing. I’m glad if I’ve managed to overcome that impulse.

      Are there Japanese customs that you find unreasonable?

      1. Heh, I’ve also been told that we might focus on things that even native Japanese don’t (part of it is the attention to detail, part of it is that we actually studied it…I know plenty of Japanese that know more about English grammar than I do)…but yeah I know it’s presumptuous of me or anyone to determine what’s unreasonable…I guess it’s more along the lines of how I can properly balance my effort or use of mental energy versus screwing things up for myself and other people. I won’t cut in line and heaven forbid not properly separating my garbage…but yeah like outlined above, I kinda draw the line with spending my vacations looking for omiyage for people or getting ochugen and oseibo. Oh, I also don’t bother to send nengajou…then again I’m also one of those guys that doesn’t bother to send inane New Year’s cards here, heh. I’m gonna assume it won’t hurt the wa that they don’t get the packaged set of fruit jelly from the supermarket from me…

  22. “It will not carry a recycled bottle of cold mugicha on the outside of its’ backpack when it enters the museum exhibition hall”
    Just back in Japan for a few weeks as my JMIL, 95, is in hospital with multiple issues. After visiting her everyday for a couple of weeks J-Wife approved a visit to an exhibition at a local museum. My first mistake was to visit a large national museum on a Sunday. It was packed. My second was too assume that the safety rule briefing I received after buying a ticket would cover all terms and conditions. I entered said exhibition and joined the queue. I patiently followed the queue around the exhibition hall. I was (a) the only gaijin in the exhibition hall at that time, (b) perhaps the only person carrying a recycled bottle of homemade mugicha on the outside of his backpack, (c) and about 75% the way around the queue, when a female member of staff asked me in her best English to put said bottle in my backpack. I immediately profusely apologised for my behaviour and complied with her request. Yeah, I know…..”Or else it gets the hose again”. But at this time of the year the cold water here is still warm. So who gives a Flying Flamingo.

      1. Probably another of these “someone could get hurt if – insert highly unlikely condition 1, 2 , 3, 4 here – happens”.

        In this case the bottle COULD POSSIBLY MAYHAPS touch an elderly lady who was already fighting for balance. Now she would finally collapse and while falling down her walking stick would hit the legs of the elderly gentleman next to her and both would possible have a small bruise or – who knows- land on their heads and die.

        And since we are in Japan this possibility is seen as very real …

  23. Funny about the balcony. I used to have a podcast going at low volume while hanging out the laundry. J-Mrs frowned a bit but didn’t make a big fuss out of it because we were renting. after we bought an apartment, she literally whispers at me when we’re out on the balcony for fear of upsetting the neighbours, and expects me to do the same. And no more podcasts…

  24. Kenさん! 本当にお久しぶりですね。私を覚えてるかどうかけど、昔私はコメントをしました。Kenさんのおかげで、私は日本語ができるようになってきました。
    Congratulations on attaining permanent residency! Every once in a while (like now), I think about working in Japan. And then I read posts like this one and question my sanity for wanting to. I got back into practicing law a few years ago, so I’m fairly confident that I could find a lawyer position in Japan, BUT whether that’s a good idea… eh, still on the fence about that.
    Cultural differences aside, it’s the housing that really is a big stumbling block for me. No central air, central heat or insulation? No thank you!

    1. 勿論覚えてるよ。元気?パリドアさんは日本語を学んだのは俺のお陰?そうではないと思うけど。とにかく出来て良かった。

      So apparently something I said helped you a bit in learning Japanese. What exactly was that? Because I’ve got no idea.

      To me, it seems like the best of both worlds would involve spending a few months of the year in Japan, and a few months abroad. I wonder if you could work out a situation like that? I’m still trying to figure it out myself.

      If you’re well-heeled enough, you can probably get a living situation that possibly includes not dying of heatstroke or freezing to death. I’d suggest not being an English teacher, for a start. Being a lawyer might afford such an opportunity, so to speak.

      1. A little surprised at your use of 俺, Ken. Never could work out the appropriate context for usage as non-Japanese Japanese speaker so avoided it altogether.

        Care to expound on how you decide to use the term rather than alternatives?

        1. Yeah, good question.

          Just some context for non-Japanese speakers: there are 3 primary ways of saying “I” in Japanese: “watashi,” “boku,” and “ore.” There are a few others too, but for guys, those are the 3 biggies.

          As an imperfect English analogy, you might answer the question “How are you?” by responding, “I’m well, thank you” (semi-formal), “I’m fine, thanks” (a bit casual), and “yeah, ‘s all good” (informal, slightly slang). In terms of how they feel to say, in my mind those correspond to the three ways of saying “I.”

          Now normally, I don’t use many pronouns in Japanese, except when necessary to make the sentence clear. In fact, it’s something of a joke among Japanese folks that foreigners begin every sentence with “watashi wa.” Most of the time you can simply omit it, as in “Hey, going to the store now,” rather than beginning the sentence with “I am.” About the only time I use “watashi” is in a business or formal setting. So that leaves “boku” and “ore.”

          Now, Palidor wrote his comment using the “-mas” form of the verbs, which is polite and appropriate, since he’s the guest. But since it’s my house, it’s up to me to make guests feel at home. I can put my feet on the coffee table and pop a can of beer, which is a signal that we’re gonna be cool and informal. It’s then up to the guest to choose to follow. So that’s part of what “ore” is signaling, along with my use of the plain (informal) form of verbs. I believe that’s consistent with the tone of this website, and in fact I’d be more formal if it were another forum.

          And just a quick aside here: people often remark about Japanese levels of politeness, and make a big deal about how polite Japanese society is, without even pausing to note that English also has varying levels of politeness. There’s a bit of Orientalism in that. If anything, Japanese is easier because the rules are better codified, whereas in English you’re constantly tying to suss out just how formal or casual to be.

          But back to your question. I feel I can safely rule out “watashi” as overly formal for this situation, given that I’m the host and not the guest. So then what about “boku” and “ore”? Clearly, “boku” has a milder feel to it, while “ore” is rougher. I might go for “boku” or even “watashi” if I were in Tokyo, or meeting someone for the first time. Likewise if they’re above me in age. But as I’ve gotten older in Japan, and over the years hung out with farmers and construction workers at countless ramshackle yatai, I’ve picked up a rougher tone. If we’re two guys sharing cans of malt liquor, I’m probably gonna use slang and rougher language as a way of indicating that we’re on the same level. (Bear in mind this is usually initiated by the older person in the conversation, in both Japanese and English.) Now, I don’t know how old Palidor is, but I’m certainly not a kid any more, so I feel okay speaking however I damn well please, particularly on my own site.

          All that being said—and I know it’s way more than you asked for—I do feel “ore” takes some getting used to. Kind of like saying “y’all” in the American south. You really can’t fake it. But if you live in that environment long enough, at some point it’s probably just going to come out naturally.

            1. Ah, my bad. I really try to avoid that mistake. Somehow your name ending in “or” just led me to make a masculine association, along with words like “matador,” “conquistador,” “señor,” etc. Clearly, a latin-based assumption. My apologies for being a bonehead.

  25. At the time (back in 2014), I was in my mid-30s and wondering if I was wasting my time learning a new language so late in life. You encouraged me to learn, raising the now-obvious point that it’s never too late to learn new skills. You gave the analogy of wanting to learn the drums later in life. Don’t quite recall what you said about drums, but I do remember that part!
    So I stuck with it. Studied for hours every day in the beginning, learned the 2000 Kanji in 18 months (that helped tremendously!), and after about 2 years, I could read fairly well. Since I’ve gone back to legal practice, I haven’t done any “formal” study, but every day on my commute, I read Japanese newspapers like NHK and Yomiuri Shinbun. I’ll watch Japanese TV before going to bed. My speaking still stinks because I have no opportunity for conversation. And that’s part of my motivation for wanting to work in Japan – my speaking and listening skills would improve. But since I don’t want to live in Japan for the long term (1-2 years would be fine), I really have no compelling reason to improve my Japanese, other than I just want to.
    Methinks there are probably easier and less life-changing ways to do that, such as taking lessons, but I seem to like doing things the hard way.

    1. Yeah, that sounds like something I said. Wow, you’re living proof that effort really is rewarded! I’m truly impressed. And now you’re an inspiration to me to keep developing my own Japanese skills (an unending project, sigh). You did it the best possible way too, by focusing on learning the kanji early on. Good job.

      It seems as though occasional visits to Japan would serve you well, because you could enjoy the country without having to uproot your entire existence. Moving here is such a massive step. Like, I enjoy going skiing, but I don’t necessarily want to purchase my own ski mountain, if you know what I mean. Or am I missing something?

  26. That was also a piece of your never-ending wisdom – don’t delay learning Kanji. I have to say that was probably the single most valuable piece of advice for learning Japanese. At the beginning, it was really tough wrapping my head around it and also grappling with multiple pronunciations. But you promised that it would all start to make sense and it did. Around 700, I started to see patterns and have a better grasp. By 1000, it came much more easily and by the time I got to around 1200, it was just a numbers game at that point to get to 2000.
    Oh, I’ve been to Japan 5 times now and I know that I would never want to make a permanent move there. Someone else commented on your blog (Ash, I think) about knowing that he wouldn’t be happy moving to Japan but not being able to get that thought out of his head. That pretty much describes me. I know that I wouldn’t be happy there, but there’s still this pull of wanting to live there, at least for a little while. I’m lucky at least that I wouldn’t have to uproot my whole existence. I can keep my residence here in Toronto and move back anytime the novelty of living in Japan wears off.
    Maybe it’s just due to discontentment with my current job situation and wanting to run away to the farthest place away from here, which would be Japan. Actually, the farthest place is probably Antarctica but I’m pretty sure there’s no demand for lawyers there.

    1. Heh, yeah, I don’t think that feeling ever goes away. I have dreams of packing up, leaving Japan, and moving to, well, pretty much anywhere. Except for maybe Antarctica or Canada. Too darn cold. Japan in the winter is bad enough. But anyway it’s not about the place. It’s just the unending quest to wring a bit more out of this life, to explore, try something new. Guess that’s why we’re not still living in caves. Damn DNA.

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