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Understanding Japanese Culture: The Concept of Enryo

Elsie is a writer who shares her knowledge about various cultures, specifically ones where she has lived.

Yes, this is me, climbing Mt. Chokai

Yes, this is me, climbing Mt. Chokai

Traveling to Japan

Back in the 90's, just after graduating from college, I made the decision to become a vagabond. Fully embracing my youthful, free-spirited nature, I traveled from Madison, WI, to Tokyo, Japan. I was jobless, homeless, and friendless.

During my travel to Japan, I thought many times that I was completely off my rocker. What began as one of the most frightening journeys of my life turned into one of the most educational, awe-inspiring experiences of my life.

After arriving in Tokyo, I stayed in a youth hostile until I found a job. I intended upon staying in the big city, but fate had something entirely different in store for me. I landed a job teaching English in northern Japan, in a small and traditional town called Nikaho-machi.

The entire train ride from Toko to Nikaho, I was wondering: where on earth is Nikaho-machi (machi means town)? The national territory is comprised of four main islands and about 3,000 smaller islands. Its four main islands are: Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku. Japan is also divided into 43 administrative units modeled on the French Prefectural system. The units are called “ken.” To further complicate matters, Japan has political divisions of nine regional groupings.

Nikaho-machi is in the northern part of Honshu, the main island, in the Tokuku region in Akita prefecture. Tokyo is also on the main island, about eight hours southeast by train. When I lived in Nikaho in the 90s, there were only about 12,000 residents. Instead of being a college town, Nikaho is much like a TDK town. About 75% of the population works at TDK as engineers, factory workers, clerical workers, managers, etc. The other 25% are town-hall members, farmers, or store or restaurant owners or workers.

I was the first foreigner many children and even some adults had ever seen. I had Japanese children chasing after me on my bike yelling: “Gaijin-san! Gaijin-san!” They were holding pieces of paper and a pen. I finally understood they wanted my autograph, as they were convinced I was somehow famous.

I highly recommend this stunning off-the-beaten-path Northern part of Japan. It's well worth part of your trip to Japan

Traditional Japan- Old Fashioned Japanese Etiquette

I was very fortunate to have the view of the Sea of Japan out the back of my “aparto” (apartment), and the view of Mt. Chokai out front. I also had the glorious view of a rice field which was situated just steps from my front door. I witnessed the Japanese farmers working day and night cultivating that rice, and the toll it took on their bodies. When I first arrived in Nikaho, I was shocked by the number of elderly people walking down the street hunched over in such a manner that I thought they'd taken to walking on all fours. I soon discovered their posture is from all the years of bending over in the rice fields. And as a woman who's 5 feet, 10 inches tall, I felt like the Jolly Green Giant in comparison to even the erect Japanese. I am not exaggerating when I way these ex-farmers had, at best, an eye-level view of my knee caps.

Japanese Attire

There was nothing modern about Nikaho, I was getting a taste of true Japanese culture there. Women wore skirts, dresses, and pants, very rarely jeans. Men would wear the jeans. I could count of my fingers the number of times I saw a woman wearing denim. During a business day, I saw people around town appearing as if they were just coming from working at a gas station. This was the I required uniform of TDK employees. No matter what level you were, they all wore the same uniform.

Japanese natto

Japanese natto

Japanese Cuisine Surprises

A popular breakfast in Nikaho was something called Nato which is very simply fermented soybeans. For this westerner, nothing was more than disgusting than Nato, something I was completely unable to fathom at 8 a.m. (or any time of day, for that matter). It looks, smells, and tastes like breakfast which has already been eaten, digested, and expelled into its proper place in the sewage system. I played it safe and had eggs and toast for breakfast. The bread there was a joke- it was like a huge, thick piece of carbohydrate-packed white Wonder Bread. I couldn't find any wheat bread in the little town store, and certainly bagels were nowhere to be found. The food I missed the most was good cheese as I'd just left Wisconsin, the dairy capital of the United States. The Japanese cheese was like processed cheese- Velveeta on a bad day.

The majority of Japanese cuisine was fantastic. It literally looks like a work of art you feel guilty destroying with your “hachi” (chopsticks). I hadn't eaten sushi until I lived in Japan, but have had it many times since returning. I've yet to find a sushi restaurant that begins to rival the quality there.

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I could find pie and cake there in bakeries, but most of their desserts resemble nothing like what we have in the United States. One popular desert is something a little like Jello in appearance, however it's quite firm and tastes nothing but sickly sweet. It's like eating pure can sugar. Another favorite is figs in a thick, syrup-like liquid. Again, sickly sweet with a texture I wasn't used to. Also popular was the famous green tea (ocha) pie. If you like algae pie, then you're in luck! The ice-cream was like the stuff you buy at a concession stand at a fair.

Me with my students and a classic Japanese spread...

Me with my students and a classic Japanese spread...


A few months into my new life in Japan, a Japanese friend called me on the telephone and I was most exasperated by a friend of mine (another American teacher) who was sitting nearby and who, for some reason could not stop laughing at me. I was ready to kill him as I needed complete concentration to communicate using my rudimentary Japanese language and broken English I'd begun utilizing. After I hung the phone up I asked him to please share with the class WHAT WAS SO DAMN FUNNY. He said: “Well, I guess you missed the fact that you were bowing on the telephone!”

I also caught myself covering my mouth while I laughed a few times. This practice is left over from years ago when it was considered unladylike for a woman to display her emotions. So, she hid her mouth with a fan if she was particularly amused. Again, I was in the heart of traditional Japan. Now it's perfectly acceptable for a woman to smile or laugh. However, you will still find the older Japanese women who haven't abandoned the practice. I did notice that quite a few women, no matter how old they were, still tended to cover their mouths when they were laughing hysterically. And the majority of women covered their mouths while laughing in front of men.


East Meets West

Since I was a gaijin (foreigner, literally translated: “person from the outside”), I was forgiven for the plethora of social faux pas I committed while living there, thankfully. As I wanted to be a respectful resident, however I did the best I could to learn about proper Japanese etiquette. Thankfully, I had a wonderful teacher and friend: Kashima-san. She took me under her wing, taught me about the culture, etiquette, cooking, Japanese language, how to grocery shop, etc... She even taught me about a very loaded concept called “enryo”, which is like the Bible of Japanese etiquette. This word can be roughly likened to “diffidence, restraint, or reserve” in Western culture.

The central way to express politeness in Japan is by diffidence. Not only does it apply to verbal expressions, but it extends to manner and mannerisms. In Western culture, if you receive a gift you tear into that puppy the minute you get it to show your enthusiasm. In Japan, it's very rude to open a gift you receive in front of the donor. That's considered way too forward and rude. If someone gives you, your family, your home, your décor a compliment, you must parry it. If you must leave an event early, you must repeatedly apologize, and sheepishly slink away.

Another great example was shown to me on the trains. It gets very hot in Japan in the summers. I would have to bring an extra change of clothing everyday to avoid being drenched in my own sweat. Many of the trains were not air-conditioned. Couple that with a very crowded standing-room-only train . It was truly miserable. But, all of the windows stayed shut. No one wanted to stand out by being the one to open a window, it's respectful to not impose your own desires upon those around you. One day, this gaijin was fed-up, I was fussy, exhausted, over-heated, and simply DONE. I got my little self up off my seat, clumsily bumped into people, excused myself, and opened the damn window. I cannot tell you the looks I got. Quite a few people laughed as well. I was literally the only foreigner in the entire area.

Enryo- The Most Confusing of All Japanese Etiquette

Thank goodness for Kashima-san, because actually having guests over to your house is where the true battleground between East and West is fought. Not too long after I arrived in Nikaho, a student dropped in unexpectedly to bring me flowers as a welcome to Japan present. I knew absolutely nothing about enryo at that time. I offered him some hot tea, and per the rules of enryo, he refused. I meekly asked: “Are you sure, Kazuhisa?” I didn't want to seem pushy. Again, he said: “No, thank you.” The Westerner that I am took it at face value. Why, you ask can't the guest simply communicate his or her desires? Enryo. For him or her to say what he really wants is about as rude as blowing your nose in your host's napkin.

Granted, being at someone's else's house isn't much easier. I dropped in unexpectedly to visit Kashima-san and brought her some English cassettes to practice. At least I knew to take off my shoes and put on the slippers, although the transition was quite clumsy for me at first. Naturally, it's polite for her to offer me tea or coffee, AND polite for me to refuse. I SHOULD say: “O-kamai-naku. (Please don't bother). Of course, it's polite for Kashima-san to ignore what I said and serve me tea anyway. However, I should refuse several more times as she continues to urge me to join her in some tea. Eventually, I am expected to give in and partake with a lot of hesitation. I will only sip a little bit of tea.

Next example is when you're actually invited over to someone's house. In this case, enryo becomes incredibly confusing. Obviously, you are expected to eat and drink, so you don't want to exhibit too much enryo, but having none is also rude. Again, I must show reluctance, and lots of it. She has her own enryo to deal with. Although she has gone to great lengths to make a wonderful meal, and it's quite elegant, she will say: “You probably won't like this,” or “This is all I could find in the house.”

Finally, remember I told you about the dreaded Nato? What if, I am offered the stuff at someone's house. Now, I am NOT going to eat this stuff. I would vomit on the tatami mat if it even touched my tongue. But, due to enryo, there's truly no way to refuse. The host will just assume you're refusing to be polite. A battle of wits has begun, the game of enryo, until someone finally gives in. And, mind you, if it's Nato, you'd better pray it's not you. You will be pressured and she'll say: “Dozo, go-enryo-naku.” This means, please go ahead, don't have enryo (don't stand on ceremony). The only solution in this case is to give in, take the Nato, but don't even take a bite.

Fortunately for me, I was a gaijin and my ignorance was forgiven. I asked Kashima-san to explain this complicated etiquette to me. Thankfully she spent a lot of time being my surrogate Japanese mother. I am grateful to this day.

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