9 “Rude” Behaviours That Are Perfectly OK in Japan
Japan's culture is completely different from that of the rest of the world. This could be due to how well they hold onto old traditions, the lingering samurai spirit that affects daily life and thinking, and the country's 220-year isolationist foreign policy under the Tokugawa shogunate in the eighteenth century, where no one was permitted to enter or leave the country, thus cutting off any outside influence.
Even in today's world, where trade and the exchanging of cultures and languages have never been easier, the country has many differences that lead to fascination and culture shock from visitors.
Often, tourists are advised to study local customs and manners before visiting the country so as not to offend local people when we go. And remember that behaviours such as talking on the phone while riding the train or blowing your nose in public can be considered rude in Japan.
But what of things that we think of as rude in our own cultures? You may be surprised to find that some things we think of as offensive at home are actually perfectly okay, or sometimes even expected, in the Land of the Rising Sun! Here are nine examples.
1. Slurping Noodles
Making a lot of noise while eating is often something you'd think of a small child doing before it's trained out of them by their embarrassed parents. A loud slurping sound, especially, can cause disturbance or even inspire nausea from surrounding people.
Not in Japan! If you visit a noodle shop, particularly a ramen restaurant, don't be surprised to hear appreciative slurping noises all around you, especially from older customers. Slurping ramen noodles sucks cool air into your mouth along with the noodles. The ramen is coming straight from the hot broth so the air helps it to not burn you. Slurping, so they say, also helps show that you're enjoying the food. It's equal to saying "mmm!"
I personally still think it sounds gross. I even heard an old man slurping his spaghetti in an Italian restaurant once. Just remember if you hear it that it's actually fine in Japan!
2. Not Maintaining Eye Contact
In the West, we are taught to maintain eye contact when talking to someone. In Japan, too much eye contact can make people feel uncomfortable. They will look at each other if they are seriously discussing something important or if they are very close, but generally, direct eye contact is minimal.
I sometimes feel like going crazy when I'm trying to talk to my husband about something and he starts staring into space. From my perspective, it seems as though he isn't listening, but it's common to look somewhere else when thinking deeply. It is one cultural difference I may never get used to. Just remember that if you're chatting to someone in Japan and they start looking down or another area of the room, that they're (usually) still listening!
3. Deflecting a Compliment
You may have felt the frustration of giving someone a compliment only for them to deflect it by denying that what you say is true or making some self-depreciating excuse. In the west, many of us pay a compliment and expect to hear "thank you."
In Japan, it's not only acceptable, but it is expected for someone to disagree when a compliment is paid to them. I've watched conversations where people say nice things like "you did really well!" or "that was great!" only for the person to shake their hand and say "no, no!" It's frustrating to see, and I want to say "just accept the compliment!"
It's a difference of culture, though! Don't worry if you say something nice to someone and they deflect it; they're doing it out of politeness, not because they don't appreciate what you said.
4. Shouting for Service in a Restaurant
In most western countries, we try to quietly catch the eye of waitstaff and patiently wait for service. It would be unthinkable to yell "EXCUSE ME!" in a restaurant! However, in most Japanese eateries, you'll hear people shouting "sumimasen" (excuse me), "onegaishimasu" (please), or even "oniisan" or "oneesan" (young man or young woman, respectively). It's a fast and easy way to get the servers' attention, and it's actually one of the behaviours I've embraced with enthusiasm.
Shouting in restaurants is quite common, especially in informal eateries. When you walk in a place, you might find the entire staff shouting at you! They're just welcoming you and you're not required to answer them.
5. Not Tipping
In some countries, such as the United States, walking out of a restaurant without leaving a tip is considered the ultimate insult. It's the opposite in Japan! Never try to leave a tip because you'll just be met with confusion or the assumption that you made a mistake.
Waitstaff and other workers are paid properly in Japan, so tipping is not expected. Whatever is written on your bill is exactly what you owe. No one will chase after you for not leaving 20% extra!
6. Being Indirect
In the West, people preach about wanting others to be completely honest all the time, even if it hurts them. Being indirect by skipping around the subject and dropping hints is considered extremely rude and a waste of time.
In Japan, you'll see the opposite. Even saying "no" to an invitation takes time. Cocking their head to the side, frowning and smiling slightly and saying "sore wa chotto..." (that's a bit...) is their way of saying "no" in an indirect and culturally "polite" way. It can be difficult to deal with, but just remember that they aren't being difficult or rude.
7. Squeezing Onto a Crowded Train
If you live in a large city with a metro, how many times have you looked at a full train and thought, "never mind, I'll get the next one?" There might be one or two people who are in a massive hurry who might jump on, annoying other passengers.
In Japan and Tokyo especially, don't be surprised to see people force their way onto trains even if they already look ready to burst. It's surprising how much extra room can actually be made. During rush hour, it isn't unusual to end up completely squashed, unable to even move your hands to take out your phone or a book. It's something I eventually managed to make myself do (to avoid being late for work) but it's still strange to see a culture that dislikes body contact be perfectly content with shoving their butt into my stomach.
8. Asking Someone's Age
Asking someone how old they are is pretty common among people in Japan. It's a sort of ice-breaker question, so don't be surprised if they ask you when you've just met! When interviewing someone on TV, they also often have their age next to their name in brackets.
This is quite different to the west, where most would agree that asking someone above the age of around 25 is quite rude, especially if the information isn't relevant to the conversation. Don't take offense if you're asked how old you are when you're in Japan, and feel free to say "that's a secret."
9. Not Introducing the Person You're With
In the west, if we are walking with someone such as our partner and bump into someone we know, it's extremely rude to not introduce those people to each other. Sometimes when I'm walking with my husband, we happen upon one of his friends. I used to stand there in awkward frustration, wondering why he didn't bother introducing me.
However, this is quite normal in Japan. I said hello to my neighbour, who was hanging out with some of her friends, and she didn't explain who I was to her friends either. Apparently it is considered too assertive and doesn't make sense to introduce someone who the person will likely never meet again. It's a very strange custom and likely something I will never get used to.
Visiting Japan is a wonderful experience, so don't let cultural differences put you off! Most people are understanding and know that visitors don't mean any harm if they make a cultural error. It can be just as confusing for the normally polite Japanese to do something that a western person might consider rude. Keep these behaviours in mind, and you might even find yourself mimicking them!
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