Before going to Japan for the first time, most of us read up on the local culture. We search for lists of things to avoid, cultural mistakes, and try our best to be good travelers.
Because, you know, we don’t want to be that foreigner.
The problem with this?
Not a single one of those lists will help you avoid what Japanese actually hate.
Sure there are the basic cultural differences you should be aware of,
Removing shoes before entering homes, and sacred areas (plus wearing slippers when available)Wash before entering a bathNo blowing your nose in publicNo tips
and so on. But, want to know something? Japanese people know the world outside of Japan is different. They do not expect you to know everything before coming to their country.
You closed your Yukata the wrong way. So what?
You fumbled with your chopsticks. So what?
Japanese people will be more impressed with you when you simply engage in their culture. This means you are aware, respectful, open, and willing to try things a different way.
However, even if you follow this rule there are some cultural mistakes you should never do.
7. Wear or Have a Strong Scent
As you can imagine space gets tight in the city, and you will often find yourself very close to others. You might think smelling good is better than smelling bad, but in Japan it’s best to lean on the side of neutral. One frustrated local writes,
“I don’t know whether it’s American fabric softener or perfume, but it reeks! The smell just drives me nuts.”
This is not to say Japanese don’t wear perfume or cologne, just when they do it’s subtle enough not to bother others.
6. Change the Scenery
While nobody should ever deface any monument or structure (anywhere!), it’s surprising what people will do to nature. That small flower you thought no one would notice? Better think again, according to this local its inexcusable.
”I don’t mind when foreigners come to see the cherry blossoms… but when they break off the branches, or put the flowers in their hair? Unforgivable!”
In Japan the surroundings are for everyone to enjoy, so try to leave a place just the way you found it.
Want to know more about how the locals do cherry blossoms? Check out The Art of Cherry Blossom Viewing: Hanami Like a Local
5. Backpack Unaware
For various reasons, not excluding their frugality, backpackers get a bad rap. This local claims,
“Backpackers come and don’t even spend any money. They shove themselves onto crowded trains while wearing their huge backpacks, completely absorbed in their own conversations.”
The good news? It’s easy to be a good backpacker. Spend money on cultural activities (museums, restaurants, tea ceremonies), and take off your backpack when you step on the train. Simply being aware of the people around you can make all the difference.
4. Cover Your Food in Soy Sauce or Other Condiments
Generally, food is presented exactly the way the chef wants you to eat it- already seasoned. There are a few exceptions to this rule, such as when you order 海鮮丼/ Kaisen-don/ Sashimi on Rice, or 揚げ物/ Agemono/ Fried Food. However, in most cases it’s best to leave the condiments alone. Why? This local says,
“It’s rude to the chef. If you want to change the taste, you should just make it yourself.”
While we all have our own preferences, a good rule is to eat half of your meal before you change the flavor.
3. Block the Flow of Traffic
Everyone gets in the way every now and then. But when traveling in groups larger than 2, you can cause a complete traffic jam. One angered local adds,
“Foreigners often walk horizontally spread across the sidewalk, stop where ever they please, and get in the way of others passing by. When they bump into people they often act like nothing has happened at all.”
Another issue easily fixed, as long as we remain aware and considerate of the people around us.
2. Ask Entirely in English
Undoubtably you will get lost, or confused. Or lost and confused, and find yourself needing to ask someone for help. The easiest way might be saying, “Excuse me….”, but be careful. According to this local,
“When I was younger, and asked for train directions by a foreigner (who didn’t say a single word in Japanese)… I gave them the longest route possible. If they asked in Japanese? I personally took them right to the train they were looking for.”
Another local says,
“I’m not asking everyone to speak Japanese, but at least say a greeting before you dive into conversation!”
So what should you do?
When approaching someone, first say すみません/ Sumimasen /Excuse Me
Followed with, English okay? i.e. Sumimasen. English okay?
Most Japanese will be happy to help. But, if you get someone who is busy or not able to help, this gives them an easy out. And please, always always end your exchange with arigatou (or for those that can say it, arigatou gozaimasu!).
1. Be Loud
Okay, let’s face it. We’re loud. And when we think no one can understand us, we tend to become louder. Why is that?
While I can’t explain that one, you should keep your hands on the volume control during your stay in Japan. As this local explains, volume is even more important on trains and other enclosed public spaces.
“I don’t know what they were saying, but their voices were so irritatingly loud! I think it’s important to practice restraint when you are in a shared public place.”
Just remember to check yourself every now and then. How loud are the people around you? Like so many other things, if you practice awareness you will be fine.
When it comes down to it, Japanese people are extremely warm, welcoming and kind. You are very unlikely to see anyone actually get upset with you – no matter what you do. But please remember to have manners. If you can treat the locals with respect, and are aware of others around you, Japan will be happy to have you.
Still want to know those other pesky cultural mistakes? Now that’s the spirit!
Make sure to check out:
How do you feel about these mistakes? Questions, comments, anything else? Let me know in the comments below, I’d love to hear from you!