Living abroad in any country is needless to say, difficult. Besides the obvious cultural, language, and social differences, there are a multitude of unspoken rules in Japan, four of which I’ve listed below.
1. Always Arrive Early … Not On Time!
By on time, I don’t mean to come exactly at the meeting time. Let’s say you are planning to meet with a Japanese person at 10:00 am sharp. That actually means that you need to arrive around 9:55 am.
For example, I recently attended a meeting, and a Japanese woman kindly offered to pick me up at 1:00 pm (13:00) for a meeting that starting at 1:30 pm (13:30). I was surprised when she rang my bell at 12:55 pm. At the meeting we attended together, around 97% of the people arrived by 1:20 pm (13:20). And of course, the meeting promptly began at 1:30 pm (13:30).
Arriving late to any meeting is considered very rude here. As a foreigner, we receive a get-out-of-jail card and free pass to arrive late once in awhile, but as a general rule of thumb, it’s always best to arrive early.
Whereas, in America, meetings may technically start at 7:00 pm (19:00), but will people will stroll in at 7:30 pm (19:30). And in San Francisco, our buses / trains are RARELY on time. But in Japan, they will apologize if the train is even 1 minute late. How nice!
2. Offer at Least 3 Times!
When presented with something to eat at a Japanese person’s house as the guest, you may dig in. However, I would recommend waiting until you are offered to eat / drink whatever is in front of you at least 3 times. It will be seen as more polite. And you’ll notice, unless in an extremely casual setting with friends, Japanese people will not wait. No one will just dig in!
Even better, offer the food to the Japanese hosts first. In most Asian countries, it’s always good to serve your elders first. As such, if you insist that they eat / drink at least 3 times before you eat / drink yourself, they will appreciate it. As a foreigner, they don’t expect us to be as respectful to elders, so when we do, they are pleasantly surprised!
As a child in America, albeit with a Japanese mother, I was taught to minimize temptations and hold back from doing what I really wanted to do at public events and gatherings. A common Japanese term used to describe this tenet is called enryo suru (遠慮する). And it means to “hold back; decline; refrain.”
From a young age, Japanese kids are taught to not give in to temptation, take more than what is offered, to always default to being respectful, etc. In daily life, this means that Japanese people will generally not take the last cookie at an event, will not be the first to say they have to leave a group gathering, and will generally defer to making it easier for the group, thereby neglecting their own needs, wants, desires.
When eating with Japanese people, keep this general rule of thumb in mind — be as patient as possible, and offer the host the food / drink at least 3 times.
3. Default to Always Bringing Omiyage!
Better safe, than sorry, right? A major Japanese cultural tradition is the practice of giving gifts. For nearly every occasion, it is customary to give gifts to superiors, friends, during specific holidays, and anyone who has helped you in any way.
As the saying goes, — when in Rome, do as the romans do — always default to bringing omiyage お土産. You can read more about what type of omiyage to bring here or here, but the most important thing is to be prepared to dole out many gifts.
As a foreigner who wants to fit in and adapt to the culture, then it’d be wise to always err on the safe side by bringing a small gift, even if you don’t think it will be necessary. Every gift I’ve brought for a Japanese person has been reciprocated. Specifically, I brought gifts for those who were going out of their way to help me like driving me to a meeting, holding a surprise tea and cookies gathering, or family. And of course, I gave one to my professor, and students who
Although I’ve only lived in Japan for less than a month, I have lived with a Japanese mother for 25+ years in the states. Hopefully, the advice on this unspoken rule will serve you well!
4. Unspoken Rules
As a general rule of thumb, Japanese people dress more conservatively than in America. Typically, women do not bear naked legs, bare arms, or their chest area. That being said, Kyoto is still one of the most fashionable places in Japan. It’s definitely not as fashionable as Tokyo, but you always spot some spectacularly dressed men and women here.
Unlike Americans, Japanese people do not spit in the streets, nor do they litter. Unfortunately, you can’t find trash cans anywhere, so you’re left to holding it for a long time.
And Japanese people typically do not walk on the wrong side of the street. In Kyoto, everyone walks on the left-hand side of the street, for example. You’ll notice it while climbing escalators, and just roaming the streets.
While that’s great that everyone follows rules when walking, they do not follow any foreseeable biking rules. General mayhem and chaos seems to rule the day for bikers. Be wary of bikers. They will most likely get out of the way for you, but don’t count on it.
Feel free to comment or share your ideas as well. What are some unspoken rules in your country?