Before arriving to Japan, I didn’t have much in the way of preconceived notions. I only thought a few things:
- Tokyo is huge
- People take their shoes off at their front door
- Vegan food would be easy to find
Well, the last one was WRONG, but that’s something I’ll discuss in another post. After being here for a week, I’ve noticed a lot of other cultural differences that I didn’t expect. Here they go:
- Every transaction is done via a money tray. No one hands cash/cards from hand to hand! They set the money in the tray, even though it’s really only useful for coins.
- Bowing is a huge thing here. I knew that people bowed before coming here, but I didn’t realize that it was to such an extent. Every restaurant, store clerk and just anyone you speak with will bow to you. The deeper you bow, the more respect you show.
- Organization here is a big thing. So you will see lines for just about everything. They feel the need to delineate the flow of traffic carefully. You will see arrows showing you which side of the stairs people should walk up and which side is down. On escalators, everyone will stand to the left so that people in a hurry can walk up the right side.
- When you pay respects at a temple there is a procedure you follow. First, you throw your coin donation into an offering box, then you bow twice, clap twice, then bow again with a little prayer. You can also clean yourself off with fresh water at a purification fountain and burn incense.
- I saw a lot of sweeping and vacuuming of the streets outside. I suppose this is necessary in a city with over 9 million people (36 million in the Greater Tokyo area).
- Incredible work ethic. This is apparent everywhere, even in the flight over. The stewardess never sat down unless instructed by the pilot. When they had a moment of free time, they would collect small crumbs they saw on the aisles.
- Every restaurant will provide you with a packaged wet towelette. Use this to clean your hands before you eat.
- They respect the rules. You will see that people are very obedient. Often times you will see people waiting at red crosswalks even when there are no cars coming!
- There is a definite style here that most of the women follow (of course not all). It’s very uncommon to see a lot exposed skin. I didn’t see anyone walking around in spaghetti straps even though it was VERY hot outside. Women usually dress up more than in the US. The most common outfits I saw were formal shorts, gaucho capris and long dresses and skirts. They also have incredible taste in shoes. Most women can be found hobbling around in chunky heels of some sort. I worried about their ankles though, as they seemed a bit weak and wobbly on the uneven surfaces of Tokyo’s streets. And of course you can’t forget the manga influence. A lot of young people like to dress in feminine, babydoll-like clothes similar to their favorite manga characters.
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- Trash is difficult. They have a complex organization system for their trash – combustible and non-combustible items. You won’t find ‘normal’ trash cans on the side of the streets. If you’re not familiar with their system it can be confusing. I know that they carefully sort through everything because I saw a worker organizing pieces of trash by hand. Since Japan is such a small island, it is sinking under the weight of its waste. Burning it is the only way to keep things under control. If you’re interested in learning more, read this article.
- Even though there hasn’t been a SARS breakout since 2004, people in Japan often wear a surgical mask to cover their face. I think now it is just a fashion trend, but others wear it to contain their own cold or prevent illness. Japan spends $230 million on surgical masks each year! If you want to learn more about the history behind the mask, read this article.
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- Japan lovesss its jingles. As you walk in the subway 4 floors underground, you will hear fake birds chirping. There are also fun chimes that let you know when the subway doors are closing.
- NO ONE TALKS on the metro. They even have signs up telling everyone to silence their phone and not take calls. It’s very interesting. The concern with being polite also extends to personal space. Almost everyone will sit in a very contained way, with their legs and arms tucked in so that others have the most space possible around them.
- Restaurants are obsessed with small glasses. And I mean tiny. Like 2 sips and the water is gone, tiny. It’s fine if you’re one of those people who somehow doesn’t drink water with their meals, but if you’re anything like me, the waiter will hate you by the end as they have to keep coming back to refill my glass every 3 minutes. To compensate for this, they have drink vending machines on every corner.
- Restaurants can stop serving up to an HOUR before their closing time. Of course the workers want a break, so when they close at 4pm, that means everyone is gone by 4pm without fail. They will remind you of this as you sit down to eat if you arrive late and look like lingerer.
- Japan also loves their toilets/bathrooms. Each toilet has a control panel on the side with a million buttons to choose from. I honestly have no idea what they are for, but some are obvious. They have the usual scent button, and usually they have a music button too. I was curious about this, so I pressed it and loud ambient noise started playing. I’m pretty sure that would attract more attention then what usually happens in there, but hey, to each their own.
Of course, there are a million other differences between our cultures, but these are the few that stood out this week. Overall, I’ve noticed that Japanese people are just much kinder and more polite than Americans. We’ve had such incredible experiences with locals here, and most people are so helpful. I’ll be posting more about these experiences shortly, so stay tuned!