Japan is a land full of wonder and mystery that may have no equal in the world. As such, it’s no surprise the way people go about their lives entails some pretty specific and unique customs to match. Some of which may seem so unique that they may be too hard to follow for anyone else around the world. To those weary though, we say, fear not. Instead, just remember the age old saying: when in Rome, do as the Romans do, and while in Japan, never blow your nose in public! You’ve been warned.
You can slurp your soup!
Slurping noodles in Japan is considered a sign of good gesture towards the house and the chef signaling a delicious meal. But this custom also has a practical purpose, slurping usually aids in cooling noodles by allowing air to pass through them while eating. This is often necessary because noodles (especially ramen) are served piping hot, and are best consumed at the hottest temperature. Slurping is particularly encouraged while eating ramen and soba, and slightly less common when eating other noodles like udon. While difficult for foreigners to get used to, after a while, this custom will quickly become second nature!
Drinking on the street is O.K.!
Japan has no open container laws; as a result, you are able to buy a beer, sit in a park and sip back a drink or two. Since there are plenty of cheap places to wet the whistle, most Japanese use this as a way to top off while traveling from party to party or bar to bar. In the spring and summer, people take the chance to drink outdoors in parks or next to rivers under cherry blossom trees, as well as during picnics with friends.
Smoking in a restaurant or bar
Influenced by the salary man culture, Japan surprisingly still allows indoor smoking within designated areas. This is particularly the case in izakayas, arcades, pachinko (or pinball) parlors and small bars. Don’t be surprised when visiting a restaurant and being asked, “smoking or non-smoking?”
“This is not a library!” Standing and reading is A O.K.
If you walk into a convenience store in Japan, don’t be surprised to find people reading magazines and books on display; something that in other countries may grant you a sharply addressed reaction from the store owner. The practice is so common that there is even a name for it; “tachiyomi” (which literally means ‘stand and read’). This is true unless the magazine or book is taped shut or wrapped in a yellow elastic. This means there are promotional items inside that could otherwise fall out. Other than that, all reading material is fair game.
Sleeping on the train and street
If you’re headed to school during the wee hours of the morning or exhausted after a long day at work, be sure to take a nap on the train or, if you’re tired after a few beers, just take a nap wherever. Throughout the country you will often find businessmen, complete with briefcase and wallet, leisurely (and drunkenly) napping just about anywhere. Join in the fun, and find a comfy space en-plain-air. More recently, the Tokyo government is discouraging the practice for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to no avail.
Blowing your nose
While in Japan, never, and we mean never, blow your nose in public. In fact, try to avoid touching your nose altogether. Ever wonder why people wear surgical masks in Japan in the first place? The pervasive surgical masks seem like a mystery to most foreigners that visit or know about Japan. But the reason behind them is simple: since it is nearly impossible to blow your nose in public and not be seen as a germ machine, surgical masks are necessary to hide the nose plugs and runny noses that may be behind them.
Talking on the phone on the train
Considered a public space in a country that values privacy, peace and quiet, the train in Japan is a place of nearly complete silence. Speaking on the phone on the train is seen as a uniquely foreigner faux-pas, as there are signs everywhere in English asking people not to talk on their phone or make loud noises. Consider the train like a library; read, listen to music with headphones, maybe take a nap, but no loud noises. In addition, be conscious of large obtrusive backpacks (we’re looking at you backpackers). Throughout Japan you will also find signs in English (along with cartoon mascots) that discourage unconscious backpacking and noisy gabbing plastered throughout most trains.
Wearing shoes indoors
Take off your shoes when visiting a Japanese home. This is a common custom for many northern Europeans and Canadians. Like these northern nations, Japan is a country of four distinct seasons. In the fall or winter, walking indoors with your shoes on can make for a dirty mess. In addition, Japanese people focus on cleanliness and shoes are generally considered unclean. Even Japanese architecture accommodates this cultural practice; every Japanese home has a ‘genkan’ which is meant for individuals to take off their shoes and jackets. The genkan will be the space you encounter immediately after entering a Japanese home and will clearly be lower than the rest of the house. In addition, make sure to point your shoes neatly towards the door. Japanese tradition states that facing your shoes inwards will invite wandering spirits into the household.
While in Japan, use your palm and never your pointer finger while pointing at signs or directions. It is considered offensive, forceful and has negative connotations. Avoid finger pointing even when talking with people you know. Pointing should only be done with the palm faced upward and with the entire hand. Try it out; you may find it to be more pleasant and it may help you understand the Japanese mindset better.
NEVER cross chopsticks or pass food with chopsticks
Considered unsanitary, passing food with chopsticks is essentially a way to pass germs. Think about it and this one is easy to understand. This gesture is also considered taboo due to the connotations associated with using chopstick-like utensils during funerals to prepare the body for burial or cremation.
BONUS: NO walking and smoking. Get to that designated area, or better yet, get to a bar!
A land of unique customs and traditions, Japan can be a bit discombobulating at times in regards to everyday practices; but as you become more accustomed to Japanese customs, they can quickly become second nature with ease. Just remember, NEVER blow your nose in public!