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The Cultural Differences In Japan – What You Need To Know

by Jacob Harris
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When I first arrived in Japan, I quickly realized that this country is not just about sushi, anime, and cherry blossoms. There were so many nuances about Japanese culture that I was not prepared to handle. You might say that it was normal for me to experience culture shock. After all, American and Japanese cultures are vastly different.

So, how different are these two cultures? Based on years of living in Japan, let me share the cultural differences I’ve noticed between the United States and Japan.

13 Cultural Differences You Should Know

1. Constant Chatter vs. Silence

Americans generally find silence awkward and sometimes even unnerving. We love to fill in the gaps in conversation with constant chatter.

Of course, having a conversation with a perfect stranger is unusual even in America, but we generally reply or talk back when we are sure that the other person is just trying to be friendly.

On the other hand, many Japanese consider silence to be golden.

There are many stories of foreigners striking up a conversation with Japanese people who stare back without replying. This could be because of the language barrier. But more often than not it’s because silence for the Japanese is already an answer.

Silence has different layers for the Japanese. It could mean:

  • Disapproval

    Japanese people don’t like saying no or directly pointing out a mistake. So they will use silence to indirectly show their disapproval. You won’t hear people saying, “Oi, don’t litter here!” But you will see some heated looks from the locals.
  • Respect

    On a more positive side, silence could mean deep respect. The Japanese are very polite so they will not interrupt you. They do this to show that they respect what you are saying.
  • Contemplation

    Silence could mean that the Japanese person you’re speaking to is thinking of the proper answer to your question or remark. This implies that she or he considers your conversation important and deserves proper consideration. In this instance, it would be best to let her or him think in silence instead of asking a follow-up question right away or, worse, repeating your question as if the other person did not hear you.

2. Monotheism vs. polytheism

In the States, we have a lot of religious beliefs to choose from. Most of us are Christians but there are also many Jewish and Muslim communities throughout America. Some consider themselves atheists or agnostics. Some go for the cults, new thought movements, or spiritualism. Whatever the choice is, we generally identify with one belief.

In the article on the top ten cities to visit in Japan, I showed that there are other religious practices in Japan like Catholicism and Muslim. These were brought in by other countries through areas like Nagasaki and Kobe.

Statistically, though, Shinto and Buddhism dominate the religions in this country. Thousands of temples and shrines attest to this. But many of the people I’ve talked with, especially the younger Japanese, don’t identify with a religious belief. They follow the practices of Shintoism or Buddhism (oftentimes both). But they do this because these are family traditions, not because they believe in the tenants of the religions themselves.

To emphasize the traditions of Shinto and Buddhism, holidays are centered around nature’s life cycles. For example, Obon is a Japanese Buddhist holiday from August 13 to 15 to commemorate the spirits of ancestors.

OSAKA. JAPAN – November 16 2016: Kentucky Fried Chicken or KFC in Japan decoration in Santa cause in Winter christmas season promotion.

3. Usual vs. quirky “holiday” traditions

In America, we celebrate Christmas with our families. Valentine’s day is a quiet dinner with a loved one. Consumerism is rampant in any developed country. Americans have “holidays” like Black Friday and Cyber Monday where we go crazy buying things we usually don’t need just because the items are on sale.

Japan has its quirky traditions changed by consumerism.

Valentine’s Day on February 14th is for ladies. On this day, stores sell chocolates of all shapes and sizes to encourage girls and women to give chocolates to their crushes and loved ones. Japan’s love for subtlety is shown in the types of chocolates that females give. There are two main types:

  • Honmei Chocolate is given to someone to one’s “true love”; this can be homemade chocolate or really expensive ones;
  • Giri Chocolate is given to friends, family, or co-workers a woman does not have feelings for; it’s also called obligatory chocolate.

March 14 in Japan is White Day. Boys and men are obligated to give products usually containing white chocolate (thus, the name of the tradition) to the girls or ladies who gave them gifts during Valentine’s Day.

Now, being most Shinto and Buddhists, Japan has adapted Christmas into a tradition considered unique in the world: KFC dinner!

Since the 1970s, due to a genius marketing plan of a KFC manager, the fast food chain started the “Kentucky for Christmas” where they sell party barrels of their fried chicken. The plan was intended for foreigners who missed having Thanksgiving dinners. Since Japan doesn’t have turkey, chicken was considered a substitute. The plan was a hit not just with foreigners but with locals as well. And a uniquely Japanese tradition was born. Japanese Christmas dinners are also spent more with friends and lovers rather than with family.

4. Cultural diversity vs. homogeneity

Throughout its history, the U.S. has been a melting pot of people from diverse cultures and backgrounds. But this metaphor does not quite describe the highly complex American society of today. As much as immigrants changed to match their new societies, their new societies also adapted to the new culture the immigrants brought in. So now we have African Americans, Asian Americans, Latin Americans, etc.

Former Director of the U.S. Census Bureau, Kenneth Prewitt, summarized it best when he said, “We’re on our way to becoming the first country in history that is literally made up of every part of the world.”

This diversity is even acknowledged in the holidays that various States celebrate like Cinco de Mayo (from Mexican culture), St. Patrick’s Day (from Irish culture), and Oktoberfest (from German culture).

On the other hand, there is a widespread notion that Japan is a homogenous society. The country, after all, implemented a self-isolation policy for 220 years. This policy restricted interaction between Japan and other countries.

The Japanese also have concepts called “uchi” (home or inside) and “soto” (outside or outdoors). Broadly speaking, the Japanese make a clear distinction between them  (fellow Japanese in a community or company) and us (foreigners in a community or company, or visitors).

But even during the period of isolation, some countries were still allowed to trade with some Japanese ports. So, even during this time, there were Chinese, Koreans, Dutch, Portuguese, and British people in Japan. After the isolationist policy ended, Japan opened its ports to even more foreign trades.

Due to the influx of foreigners, there are Japanese who are “haafu” or biracial.

Probably the most famous one in recent years is Ariana Miyamoto, Japan’s delegate to the 1995 Miss Universe contest. Miyamoto is half-Japanese and half-African American. She was born and grew up in Japan, but she still suffered some discrimination for not being pure Japanese.

Miyamoto’s experience is still the norm in Japan. Although biracial Japanese are admired as models or actors, they are considered as something of a novelty but not truly part of the “uchi.”

These days, globalization is very much the “it” thing though. Many Japanese companies are sponsoring their employees to learn English. With the Tokyo 2020 Olympics looming nearer, Japanese are preparing for people from all over the world to descend on their capital.

Japan’s population is decreasing as well. So, Japanese companies now accept foreign workers. It’s not rare to find a Starbucks barista in Japan who’s a Foreigner.

Maybe these changes indicate that Japan is slowly shifting from a homogeneous society into a diverse one.

5. Non-traditional vs. Traditional Family Structures

When it comes to family structures, America is all about diversity. We have:

  • Nuclear Families: (mother, father, and child/children; recently these also include same-sex parents like father, father or mother, mother and child/children)
  • Single-parent Families: (lone parent taking care of a child/children; these families used to result from the death of one parent but these days there single-parent families due to divorce or teen pregnancy);
  • Step-families: (again due to divorce, many families now live together due to second (third, fourth, fifth, etc.) marriages of the parents)
  • Extended families: (nuclear families living with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, or other family members)

Traditionally, American families encourage children to become independent as soon as possible and to live separately from their parents. Financial restrictions might prevent this for some but generally, this unwritten social rule is followed.

On the other hand, Japan has traditional nuclear and extended families. Limited spaces in certain cities prevent big extended families. Many grandparents live with their children’s families, though this culture of extended families is practiced by many Asian families, not just Japanese ones.

There are some single-parent families and step-families in Japan, but not as many as those in the U.S.

Japanese children are also encouraged to become independent but there is no stigma in living with parents even when children are already adults. An unmarried child could live with the parents, grandparents, or family of a married sibling.

6. Public Display of Affection vs. Public Glare of Disapproval

In the U.S.A., public displays of affection are okay. Families hug when they see each other. Lovers kiss and cuddle while out on the streets. Friends slap each other’s backs (sometimes their butts) when they’re hanging out together. These are all considered normal behavior.

It is very rare for public displays of affection to be done in Japan. Young couples do hold hands sometimes. Some engage in occasional cuddles. But that’s the extent of affection shown by the Japanese in public situations. Needless to say, there are no long hugs or kissing done on the streets.

People will not forbid you from displaying such behavior, though. As discussed above, you will only see glares of intense disapproval and receive very palpable silence from the locals.

7. Low vs. High Quality Customer Service

Customer service in the U.S. is pretty much “you get what you pay for.” If you pay premium rates then you can expect very good customer service. If you don’t pay anything, then don’t assume a high rate of customer service. Unless, of course, you give a very nice tip to the staff. Then you’ll be assured of some form of good customer service.

Now, I’m not saying that tipping is pure bribery. People from the service industry barely earn minimum wage. Tipping is our country’s way of helping them take home a little bit more than what they make.

On the other end of the globe, one of the most shocking and awkward situations an American could experience in Japan is the country’s no tipping culture.

Maybe because hospitality and quality service is so ingrained in Japanese culture, the concept of additional payment for a service is alien to them.

From food servers to taxi drivers to hotel staff to construction workers and even the staff who make sure that trains are kept clean at each station, you can expect the Japanese to give you 110% service without question, and without waiting for Tips.

Three Japanese concepts can explain this culturally-ingrained work ethic: “shokunin,” “omotenashi,” and “okyaku-sama wa kami-sama.”

English dictionaries and American thinking can’t translate the intricacies of these concepts but:

  • “shokunin” is literally translated as a person who has mastered a profession. But beyond the technical skills, this is a person has also imbibed the spiritual pride in a chosen profession and the social responsibility associated with it. This means that no matter how “low” a profession is, it is still considered as important to Japanese society thus it is the civic duty of a person to do his or her utmost in completing each task of said profession.
  • “omotenashi” is said to come from traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. Breaking down the kanji of the word, you have “motsu” (to have) and “te” (hand). Going beyond the literal translation is a concept of selfless hospitality and anticipation of a guest’s needs. In Japanese tea ceremonies, the guest’s total enjoyment of the experience is paramount.
  • “okyaku-sama wa kami-sama” is similar to the English saying “the customer is always right.” But the Japanese concept goes a step further to “the customer is a god.”

This high level of customer service starts from the moment you step foot in a store or restaurant. Staff members are required to greet a customer with the usual “Irrashaimase” (Welcome) in a very friendly tone accompanied by a bow. They will use “keigo” (the level of extremely polite Japanese language, usually reserved for those in authority, really wealthy people, or royalty). The staff will bend over backwards to help you.

This is quite an old story but during one season of The Amazing Race, one female Japanese airline staff in a skirt and high heels ran after some racers who were already in a shuttle bus because she realized she gave incorrect information and wanted to rectify it. She could have just gone, “Meh, my bad.” No. She ran after them. Again, in heels and wearing a skirt.

To stretch this concept of customer service even further, when you visit Japan, you will see a lot of vending machines for just about anything and everything! Even Japan’s mountains have vending machines!

You get the usual ones that sell drinks like hot or cold tea or coffee or soft drinks, snacks like chips or chocolates, rice, or even umbrellas. There are vending machines that sell unusual items like insects (live insects or snacks with insects as ingredients), flying fish soup for homemade udon, eggs, vegetables, canned bread. So, you can get anything you (and sometimes things you don’t need) just around the corner.

Speaking of convenience, there are a lot of convenience stores in Japanese cities too. And these convenience stores carry terrific food, stuff for emergencies, and, just like vending machines, things that you don’t need but might want, like Porn.

Yep, you read that right. Convenience stores sell adult magazines. Although, 7-Eleven, FamilyMart, and Lawson, three of the biggest names in convenience stores in Japan, announced they would stop selling adult magazines in their stores starting January this year. Whether all the franchisees follow the directive of the main offices remains to be seen.

The only exception to this high customer service concerns tattoos.

As I discussed in the article about public etiquette, many hot spring establishments (onsen) bar people with tattoos from entering their premises. This is because, in Japanese society, only the “yakuza” (mob) have tattoos. Even some public swimming pools have rules against people with tattoos. So, even if you’re a foreigner and obviously not part of a local mob, you’ll still have a hard time going into an onsen if you have tattoos.

Going back to the initial point of this part, whatever the reason may be, do not attempt to give a tip in Japan. You will embarrass not only yourself but your Japanese server as well. 

Trivia: not many visitors know this but some restaurants have an alternative to a service charge. They force you to pay for food you don’t order. For example, some bars give fried anchovies as an appetizer even if you didn’t order it. This is not free. You can’t say no to it. It will be part of your bill whether you eat it or not.

8. Low Context vs. High Context Cultural Communication

In America, being frank and looking directly into someone’s eyes when you are speaking with them is normal. This is because in general, Americans have what is called a “low-context culture.”

According to the cultural anthropology theories of C.B. Halverson and Edward Hall, a low-context culture relies on explicit communication. We need messages to be clear and direct to the point. People who have disagreements, especially in academic or political situations, generally use rational and impersonal reasons. Breaking off eye contact could mean you’re not interested in what another person is saying.

On the flip side, being too direct in Japan could be taken as being rude. Making eye contact could make a Japanese person uncomfortable. Japan, like many Asian countries, has a “high-context culture.”

Communication in Japan is highly contextualized. You have to read between the lines and interpret a person’s non-verbal messages in addition to their words. Japanese people can be quite subtle or intentionally vague with their opinions and answers.

It’s not rare to have a Japanese say “Maybe I know this” instead of admitting “I don’t know.” They will say “Today is a little bit…” instead of saying “I have to meet my girlfriend so I can’t go with you.”

9. Individualistic vs. Collectivist

American culture tends to focus on the individual. We like to stand out from the pack so that our accomplishments will get noticed. Employees change jobs many times to pursue our individual career paths. Bosses can make certain decisions without having to consult other people.

In Japan, the community is more important than the individual. The community here refers not just to a neighborhood but to a company as well.

A prime example of this sense of community is cleanliness. You will be surprised to see how clean Japan can be. Even their cities are clean! And this cleanliness is a community affair for the Japanese.

Very rarely does a school have a janitor. Students as young as those from elementary are taught to clean their schools.

Remember last year’s World Cup games when the Japanese supporters gained fans of their own when they cleaned up the area they were occupying? They came to the games with trash bags and they picked up their trash after the games. They did this when their team won and even when their team lost.

And it wasn’t just the supporters. The football players themselves left their lockers clean and even had the grace to leave a thank you note when they lost and had to bow out of the World Cup games.

Fast Food restaurants in Japan have community clean-ups as well. After eating, you have to wipe your table and bring your tray and trash to the proper bins. There are bins for the trays, the cutleries, recyclable wastes, and food wastes. Be very careful when you’re separating your trash because the Japanese take waste segregation very seriously.

And if you’re planning to live in Japan for quite a while, better learn your area’s trash guide too.

There is a very strict garbage disposal system in each town, city, ward, and district. A trash guide for a city could be 40 pages long! If you plan to move to another city, you will have to learn a brand new system all over again.

Every piece of trash must be sorted. Each type of trash is placed in a specific colored bag and placed in the proper pick-up area.

Recyclable must be cleaned of residual content like milk or lotion. Bottle caps should be separated from the bottles if they are made from different materials. Paper products must be separated between books and magazines, and cardboard boxes. These must be tied together with a string before being placed in proper receptacles for pick up.

If you don’t do it this way then there’s a chance that your trash will be returned to you. Can you imagine coming home from work and seeing a trash bag right by your door?

Speaking of trash cans, don’t be the foreigner who litters. If you’re in Tokyo there is a historical reason why there are not many trash cans in the city. Read my article on public etiquette to find out more about it.

Another example of this sense of community is the custom of wearing surgical or face masks when you cough, cold, or suffering from allergies. Japanese people wear masks so that they will not cough or sneeze on other people because they don’t want other people to catch whatever illness they have. In business contexts, Japanese companies promote a sense of family among their employees. This is why longevity is one important part of employment in Japan. It is normal for a worker to start employment with and retire from just one Company.

Further, even a CEO will not make a decision right away. People in authority will usually consult the team of a certain project before making a decision. This makes the decision-making process slower than what Americans are used to.

To stretch the feeling of community even in the workplace, Japanese people are obligated to bring souvenirs for their co-workers when they go on a trip. Whether the trip is for business or pleasure, whether it is just across Japan or abroad, they need to bring a small token for their co-workers. This type of culture is very rare in American society. We buy souvenirs for ourselves or family, sometimes for friends, but not really for co-workers.

10. Card vs. cash

For Americans, carrying a credit or debit card and swiping it to pay for something almost anywhere in the country is pretty much the norm. Cash is just for emergencies.

In Japan, cash is still king. I’m not talking about banknotes. Coins can buy you a meal in Japan.

If you do only have banknotes, don’t worry about it. Japanese staff will give you change for a ¥10,000 even if you buy something worth only ¥100.

Many establishments, especially the small ones, don’t accept credit cards. If you’re using public transportation, you’ll need cash for train tickets, exact change for buses, and some taxis will not accept credit cards even though they have stickers that say otherwise.

Japanese banks close at 3:00 p.m. and many of them will also close their ATMs at the same time. Banks are also closed during weekends and holidays. So, if you need to withdraw money or transact any business with banks, you better plan ahead. Some convenience stores like 7-Eleven have ATMs 24/7 that will accept international cards.

Trivia: Taxis are very expensive in Japan. But if you need to use one, remember that the light is red when it is available and green when it is occupied.

11. Work to Live vs. Live to Work

Work-life balance is something many American employees strive for. Typically, an American works for 40 hours a week with Saturdays and Sundays as our rest days. Some work overtime, but they are generally paid for their effort and such overtime is not required all the time.

Flexible time and telecommuting are becoming more popular among American workers. These options allow them to choose what time they go to work or to work from home altogether. This gives them more time for family matters while still being able to complete work-related tasks.

In Japan, work is at the center of people’s lives. The term “workaholic” does not even come close to describing a typical Japanese employee. Even when they work for long hours, they still find ways to do something else. I know some Japanese who go to online English classes at midnight after a long day at the Office.

Offices give each employee a cubicle for some independence and privacy. Although some offices are now exploring shared work spaces. Socializing after work is done but not required.

A Japanese office setting usually has the boss in a table separate from subordinates. Regular employees have their work spaces but no partitions. This is supposed to encourage collaboration among employees. But some employees feel that the lack of partition is not good for work, especially if your neighbor is the talkative type.

Technically employees work 40 hours a week. But, it is an open secret that overtime work is practically a given in Japanese companies. Employees are not allowed to bring work home. So, they have to render overtime to finish their tasks. It is normal for employees to render 12 hours of work per day. A workweek used to include Saturdays in the past until this was changed to the usual five days a week.

Some companies now give monthly overtime pay. But the Japanese also have what they call “service overtime” which means overtime rendered for the sake of the company and thus does not need to be paid. This type of overtime usually lasts for 20 to 40 hours.

The darker side of this culture of live-to-work is that black companies force employees to work overtime without payment. There have been many stories of Japanese employees working themselves to death. The Japanese have a term for this: “karoshi,” which can be translated to death from overworking.

Trivia: because employees have a regular work schedule, rush hour in Japan is hectic. You’ve probably seen those pictures and videos of packed trains in Japan. Yes, the lines to the trains are long and the train cars are wall-to-wall people.

12. Laidback vs. Strict Social Hierarchies

In America, you can call your boss by his or her first name. In general, if you want to express a form of respect, you call a person by Mr. or Dr. or Atty.

Respect in the US is earned, not automatically given based on seniority. Freedom of speech is important so even those in authority can be questioned.

In Japan, there is a very strict social hierarchy. Bosses must be given deferential respect. People who are “sempai” (i.e. someone who enters a company or club first) must also be given the same deference. The “kohai” (junior) is at the bottom of the company or social ladder.

If you’ve read sports manga this social structure is very evident. The difference is even shown in the way seniors get to bathe first before their juniors. 

This social hierarchy can be exploited.

Many companies use seniority for promotions rather than individual merit. Usually, newbies are assigned to do menial work that’s not even related to their job. For example, they are assigned to pick a spot during hanami (cherry blossom viewing) season. There are stories of newbies staying in one spot from morning till evening until his or her co-workers can get out of the office and party. A subordinate cannot say no if a boss invites him or her to a drink after work.

Trivia: Japanese employees engage in “nomikai.” This is the tradition of bar hopping after work to unwind and relax with co-workers. It is becoming less practiced but it is still done by many. It is considered very rude if a subordinate turns down an invitation from a boss to drink after work. Sometimes they get so drunk that they miss their trains. This is the reason why you will see drunk employees, mostly men, sleeping on sidewalks in big cities. Having a hangover does not exempt you from going to work the next day, so instead of catching a taxi and going home they just sleep off the alcohol and go to their offices from their sleeping spots.

13. Gender equality vs. Inequality

The World Economic Forum publishes an annual report on gender equality among 149 countries. The 2018 Global Gender Gap Index published last December ranks America 51st out 149.

Japan is ranked a dismal 110th out of 149 countries. Granted, it has gone up four spots since the 2017 report because the wage gap between male and female workers has improved a little bit and more women now have technical and executive positions in the workplace.

Japan has a very patriarchal heritage. Traditionally, women are considered a second class in Japanese society. When they get married, women are expected to quit their jobs to become full-time housewives and stay-at-home moms. Some older couples walk with the man in front and the woman a few steps behind. Female representation in Japanese politics is very poor with only 10% of MPs being women.

The Japanese women I’ve talked with say that compared to ten or twenty years ago, there are visible changes to the country’s male-dominated society. For example, last April’s elections set record highs for the number of female city mayors (6) and the number of women elected to city assemblies (1,239).

In 2010, the Japanese Parliament passed a law that requires companies that have more than 50 employees to make sure that women fill 40% of its managerial positions.

In 2016, another law was passed to encourage women more participation in the workplace and to require companies with more than 301 employees to hire a certain number of female workers.

In 2018, another law was passed requiring companies to give male and female workers the same wage scale if they have 25 or more employees. These laws do not give penalties to companies that do not follow the laws though. This huge gender gap may be one reason why sexual harassment is a rampant issue in Japan. For a discussion of this and other safety issues, read my article on what to watch out for in Japan.

Additional Information:

This isn’t exactly part of the culture but you might want to know how to operate the complicated toilets of Japan and their traditional ones as well.

If you’re staying in a city, you’ll probably come across one of Japan’s hi-tech toilets. These boast of heated seats, bidets that have angles depending on which part of your lower anatomy you want to clean, and a sound system to make sure that the person in the other cubicle doesn’t hear what you’re doing.

On the other end of the spectrum, if you’re traveling to some traditional or out-of-the-way spots in Japan you might come across their traditional toilets. These are toilets built into the floor. Doing a number 1 will not cause any problem for guys. But, if you’re a woman or if you need to do a number 2, you will have to squat over the toilet. This can be a very awkward maneuver for many. Be prepared.

Conclusion

One of the best things about traveling is learning about how other people live, what their culture is like, and how they view life. To enjoy your trip, the best thing to do is to accept that there are different strokes for different folks. Getting frustrated over cultural differences will get you nowhere.

You might come across a cultural aspect of Japan that’s not on this list. If so, tell me about it. I’d love to hear your story.

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