When you are in Japan, one of the things you will notice almost right away is their manners.
Manners. That thing your parents taught you when you were a wee thing because it was a thing you saw they did just to make your life harder? (No, not really. Just a little joke)
Japan is seen as one of the most ‘polite’ group of people. They seem to be innately in tune to making others around them feel more comfortable. They have this unusual understanding and grasp on what it is to be patient and helpful.
However, the Japanese are well aware that most foreigner who come to Japan do not have the same concept they do when it comes to manners. Because of this awareness, they are especially tolerant of certain cultural differences.
If you want to immerse within their culture and know what to expect, here are a few useful tips:
1. When you find yourself in a crowded place or need to get by, say ‘Sumimasen’ (suh-mi-mah-sen) すみません or ‘Gomenasai’ (Goh-meh-nah-sai) ごめんなさい.
The translation for both of those words is equivalent to the English word ‘excuse me’ or ‘I’m sorry’. The most commonly used is the former, more formal approach. So, when you need to squeeze by somebody or get through a crowd, uttering those words can be make a world of difference between being rude and being respectful.
2. Pick up after yourself.
One of the very unusual things you might notice is that there aren’t that many trash cans conveniently placed for your disposal needs. There are some exceptions, but on the most part when you are walking through parks, checking out shrines and temples, exploring cultural landmarks or even taking the subway, you will find very few or no trash cans.
Japan is a very clean country. You will rarely see litter on the streets, or gum stuck to the sidewalks. Cleanliness is seen as a standard. When you find yourself walking around with a can of soda, please do not throw it anywhere! The best thing you can do is carry around some plastic bags. You can buy something at the local convenient store and use the plastic bag they give you to keep your trash in it for later. That is exactly what they do. They carry their own trash and throw it away in their own trash can, whether that be at their home or in your case, a hotel trash can.
3. Take your shoes off when it’s called for.
Japan is keen on keeping the germs outside. Be aware when you step into a home or a business and observe. If in doubt, just ask. There will be subtle clues, like a shoe rack and a display of house slippers placed in front for you to use. It can be seen right as you walk through the door, or merely in certain secluded areas like in some parts of a restaurant or a play area for kids. There might even be a separate pair of slippers for when you enter the restroom. All in all, be mindful.
Japanese are well aware that certain etiquettes are not seen as standard in other cultures and they will kindly help you out. Just be observant and respect their methods. Don’t worry about it too much.
4. Learn a few basic words and cultural etiquettes.
Besides being polite and cleaning up after yourself, learning a few words and phrases are greatly appreciated when you come to Japan.
Some Japanese might speak and understand English but not everyone can, so don’t expect it. To make your time more enjoyable, learn a few simple phrases. It would be seen like you are making an effort. Not only that, but you can brag to your friends that you spoke Japanese while in Japan! Nevertheless, most of them will appreciate your efforts. Even if you do not get a chance to learn some key words or phrases, they will work with you. Just be patient and you will see that your trip will be easy and enjoyable.
5. Don’t be wasteful.
Their focused control on waste is implemented into them at an early age when children are taught to eat everything on their plate.
This is also seen in many restaurants, especially the ‘buffet’ kind, like the ‘yakiniku’ (Japanese grill) places where they serve an all-you-can-eat type of menu. Some of them might even put up English signs cautioning guests that they will be charged extra if they leave ‘leftovers’ behind.
Keep in mind that when you visit a restaurant, leaving an excess of food behind is frowned upon. Unless they caution you on charges for that, you might never know.