Culture and Customs

Correct manners are very important among the Japanese. Also, as a foreigner, you should be familiar with at least the most basic rules.

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Entering a Japanese House

When entering a Japanese house, outdoor shoes are always replaced by slippers at the doorway (“genkan”). If it is not your house, slippers are provided by the host. When entering a room with a tatami floor, slippers are removed as well. Tatami should only be stepped on with socks or bare feet.


Toilets

There are two styles of toilets in Japan: Japanese and Western.

Public washrooms are often equipped with both styles, although some older facilities might have only Japanese-style toilets, while some newer facilities might have only Western-style ones. The toilets in most public homes and hotels are Western style.

Western-style toilets in Japan often feature options such as a heated seat, a built-in shower and dryer for your behind, and an automatic lid opener. Both styles of toilets usually have two flush modes, "small" (小) and "large" (大), which differ in the amount of water used.

When using the washroom in a private home, you will often find toilet slippers used exclusively for inside the washroom. Leave your usual slippers outside the washroom, and do not forget to change back into them afterwards to avoid an often committed cultural faux pas.

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Taking a Bath

In Japan, the main purpose of taking a bath, besides cleaning your body, is to relax at the end of the day. The typical Japanese bathroom usually consists of two rooms: an entrance room where you undress, which is equipped with a sink, and the actual bathroom, which is equipped with a shower and a deep bath tub. The toilet is almost always located in an entirely separate room.

When bathing Japanese style, you are supposed to first rinse your body outside the bath tub with a washbowl. Afterwards, you enter the tub, which is used for soaking only. The bath water tends to be relatively hot for Western bathing standards. After soaking, leave the tub and clean your body with soap. Make sure that no soap gets into the bathing water. Once you have finished cleaning and rinsed all the soap off your body, enter the bath tub once more for a final soaking. After leaving the tub, the water is usually left for the next member of the house. Washing and rinsing is done outside of the actual bathtub to keep the bath water clean for all members of the house.


Eating and Dining

In Japan, you say "itadakimasu" ("I gratefully receive") before eating and "gochisosama (deshita)" ("Thank you for the meal") after finishing the meal.

Individual vs. Shared Dishes

It is not uncommon in private households and in certain restaurants such as an izakaya, a type of drinking establishment, to share several dishes of food at the table rather than serving each person an individual dish. When eating from shared dishes, move some food from the shared plates onto your own with the opposite end of your chopsticks or with serving chopsticks that may be provided for that purpose.

Some table rules:

  • Blowing your nose in public, and especially at the table, is considered bad manners.
  • Emptying your dishes to the last grain of rice is considered good manners.
  • Talking about toilet related and similarly unappetizing topics during or before a meal is not appreciated by most people.
  • Burping is considered bad manners.
  • After eating, try to move all your dishes back to the same position they were at before the start of the meal. This includes replacing the lids on dishes and putting your chopsticks on the chopstick holder or back into their paper slip.



Drinking Rules

When drinking alcoholic beverages, it is customary to serve each other, rather than pouring your own beverage. Periodically check your friends' cups and refill their drinks if if you see that their cups are getting empty. Likewise, if someone wants to serve you more alcohol, you should quickly empty your glass and hold it towards that person.

While it is considered bad manners to become obviously drunk in restaurants and other public places, other types of restaurants such as izakayas are often a little more relaxed, as long as you do not bother other guests.

Do not start drinking until everybody at the table is served and the glasses are raised for a drinking salute, which is usually "kampai." Avoid using "chin chin" when making a toast since, in Japanese, this expression refers to the male genitals.


A Basic Outline of the Culture

Basically, the historical fabric of Japan revolves around agriculture and a close relationship with nature. Looking at the Japanese character for "rice field," which is 田, we can see that it is a square equally divided into four parts. This represents the way that, in the past, peasants were given parcels of land to work. This was equal to their life, with rice being both food and currency. Each man worked his field and respected his fellow man, and without that structure, society would not have been possible since there were only kings and peasants in the social structure at the time. Working a rice field was a social status, a destiny, and an occupation all in one.

Today, this influence can be seen in rural agrarian Japan as well as in the many festivals, national holidays, and traditions still present in society. Along with this agrarian tendency was the deep respect for nature, which, in its simplest way, can be seen in the tatami mat. Farmers, having left over rice fiber, developed the use of this fiber into flooring, which is now a fine art. Importing ideas from China lead to the use of chopsticks made of bamboo that grew on the side of rice fields as well as the use of bamboo for a samurai's armor, a kendo sword, and many other common and uncommon items. Even though Japan's cultural whaling tradition is now under international scorn, in the past, every part of the whale was used, including the leftover bones, to make tools and implements. Even today, Japanese have a close relationship with nature, and for example, one of the most popular hobbies for retired people is mountain climbing.

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Q&A with a Japanese Manager at Interac

To get the best insight into the Japanese culture and how it works, we gave a Japanese manager at Interac a questionnaire to complete. A good understanding of this information will be beneficial to you during the recruiting process. Here is what the manager said.


Why won’t Japanese people look me in the eyes?

This is simply one of many significant cultural differences that most non-Japanese people have a hard time understanding. While not making eye contact while someone is talking to you is considered rude in Western and many other cultures, doing so for a long time is in Japan. A parent would feel disrespected if their child looks straight back at them.


Why do Japanese people say “yes” all the time?

Japanese people often use the word “yes.” Despite their verbal agreement and signs of understanding, it’s not so easy to understand whether Japanese people have truly agreed or understood you. This is one of many aspects where misunderstandings lead to discomfort between the Japanese people and foreigners.

“Yes” in Japanese, “hai,” has ambiguity in the word itself, depending on the situation, while in English, the word doesn’t have much ambiguity.

Japanese people use it in much the same way an English speaker would give a nod and say “uh-huh,” “I see,” or “hmm.” With this said, don’t assume that a Japanese person will understand everything you say. They may only be saying “yes” as if they’re nodding to what you say. It’s always good to double-check with someone if you think they have a question mark on their face.

Another reason you should double-check at the end of the conversation is that, in Japanese culture, it’s considered rude to interrupt someone in the middle of their speech. There’s a chance that a Japanese person may understand the main point of the conversation but not the small details.

In addition, little adjustments such as speaking clearly and slowly and choosing common vocabulary can always help avoid misunderstanding in communication.


Why do Japanese people like the word “maybe”?

Japanese people rarely use the word “no.” It’s not that they can’t say the word, but they prefer to use “maybe.” Japanese custom has a strong taboo against directly refusing or giving negative opinions to someone else’s ideas. Japanese people will try to keep any confrontation out of the work environment in order to maintain the harmony known as “wa.”

Often, Japanese people will agree with you during class. This is to avoid any confrontation. However, it wouldn't hurt to ask the teacher during recess or lunchtime if there are any concerns or comments about the lesson. Despite how this might frustrate many of you, with time or with change of setting, the teacher might give you their honest thoughts. Due to the language barrier, the teacher might not have any concerns. However, it wouldn't hurt to approach teachers in each class, as this would make the teacher more comfortable with you, and, in the future, they may be able to share some honest opinions.

How do you read their mind to understand if they mean “no”? As you may all know, communication is more than just exchanging words. What one can do to improve their relationship with Japanese people is to try to understand them not only through words but also through their voice tone and body language.


Why won’t Japanese people speak to me directly?

This is another cultural difference, and it’s simply due to Japanese people doing their best to maintain the harmony known as “wa.” In Japan, directly pointing out mistakes or giving negative opinions to a co-worker is avoided. Japanese people think this act will create conflict in the work environment. Because of this, they convey messages gently by not speaking to one directly but by having a third party do so. This method of communication is considered best to maintain the harmony or “wa,” whereas for many foreigners, it’s seen as “sneaky” or “untrustworthy” behavior. Although it is one of the most difficult customs for many foreigners to understand, it’s important to understand Japanese people’s effort to maintain “wa.” They will appreciate you understanding and respecting their behavior, and moreover, your effort to maintain “wa” will certainly be recognized and appreciated by the Japanese rather than attempting to justify your point.


Why do Japanese people apologize so much?

This is another custom that supports the idea of maintaining “wa” in the Japanese social structure. Historically, its society was agricultural and village-based, with people cultivating tiny plots of land side by side. Cooperation in the village was essential in order to operate as a group to cultivate crops on limited available land. In Japan, maintaining group harmony and restricting individual demands and desires was highly regarded. This is why individualism has a negative connotation and can sometimes be interpreted as simple egotism.

The expression “sumimasen,” which can be translated as “I am sorry,” is used to ease and prepare the atmosphere and promote interaction. It is not Japanese people simply apologizing for no reason. This act of conversation is very basic for Japanese people, and it’s used simply to get someone’s attention in order to get to the main discussion point.


Why can’t Japanese people insist that they are right?

Japanese people usually don’t argue against what someone says to them. In Japan, if you argue back at someone, you run the risk of it being taken as a character assault. It’s important to take plenty of time before voicing opposition, no matter what the subject or situation. It is not good to quickly offer an opposing opinion. In Japanese culture, it is always important to consider the appropriate time, place, and occasion (T. P. O). This is known as “ma.” In reality, “ma” is not just a few seconds or minutes. Sometimes, it can take several days or weeks to bring the topic up again after the initial conversation. Conveying a message indirectly through “ma” is an important technique by which Japanese maintain “wa.”


Why are Japanese people so ambiguous?

In Japan, being ambiguous is intelligent and savvy. Ambiguity is a weapon that enables one to co-exist harmoniously with others and to enjoy the benefits of insider status. Ambiguity avoids or smooths over conflicts and promotes teamwork, allowing one to modestly blend into the group. You can avoid angrily criticizing the ambiguous behavior of your Japanese colleagues by learning a little about their culture. Efforts to adapt to their ways of behavior should be made. Through repeated trial and error, misunderstandings can be resolved.


Why are Japanese speeches so hard to understand?

Japanese people try to get to the core of a problem by first understanding the background and context. They use “kishotenketsu,” a style of logic used in speeches and in relating accounts. This style presents the background of an event and gives related examples and only then comes to the main point in the conclusion. You may get bored or interrupt the speaker in anticipation of the conclusion. Often, this builds more frustration, as the Japanese speaker usually just starts from the beginning again. This is a result of significant differences in communication style.


Why can't Japanese people explain things clearly?

It is often said that the Japanese people convey messages containing unspoken meanings. The proverb “say one, know ten” illustrates the belief that if the whole message is given all at once, a person can give the impression of being too pushy or patronizing to the other party. Unfortunately, there are cases in which a Japanese person may explain five points to get ten across, thinking that this is enough, but the foreigners may still only understand half of his or her explanation. To avoid misunderstandings, foreigners can take memos and go over the points at the end to let the person know what you got from their explanation.


Why don’t Japanese people go home right after work?

In Japan, people have to get to know each other and build a good relationship in order to create “wa” among the group. After working all day, staff members come back to the staff room at the end of the day, and this allows those from the various departments to see each other, just like a family. Department members get together after five to relax and discuss what happened during the day, exchanging customer-related gossip or information about internal affairs. Japanese people stay late in order to be part of the circle of communication and to network. It’s not that they always stay late to work, rather, they stay late to build relationships. In reality, the practice is not very productive.


Why do Japanese people take so long to make decisions?

In Japan, an individual’s decision-making authority is more limited than in other countries. Foreigners can readily change plans after a decision is made, but this is most often almost impossible in Japan. The Japanese people’s strength is that they take time to lay a solid foundation before the initial decision. Consensus is necessary in making the initial decision, so Japanese people must gather the necessary resources, statistics, and past precedents along the way in order to persuade top management.