Some Japanese social customs and attitudes

Although Japanese society is usually described as being homogeneous, on close observation, it is complex and diverse in terms of socio-economic factors. As in any other country, there are variations by region, community size, education and other factors. Japan has its minority groups, though less visible than in other countries, and these are becoming more active and expressive. The following brief sketch of some major differences in social customs is intended to help ease your initial entry into Japanese society.

Table of Contents

1.Being a “Gaijin” in Japan

One of the first Japanese words you will hear in reference to you is “Gaijin,” literally translated as “outside person.” For those who came from a heterogeneous society composed of immigrants from around the world, it may be troubling to be referred to as a “foreigner,” “alien,” or “gaijin.” The term “gaijin” is not generally used to downgrade foreigners, although some visitors, who live in rural areas where people are unaccustomed to foreigners, sometimes find it very annoying to have children point fingers at them and call them “gaijin.” Others wonder why Japanese do not identify foreigners as “Americans,” “British,” or “Australians,” rather than lumping all non-Japanese together as “gaijin.” Long-time foreign residents of Japan may also find it annoying to still be referred to as “gaijin,” but the continuing use of the term must be understood in terms of Japan’s historical development and relative homogeneity.

2. Greetings

Upon meeting each other for the first, second or umpteenth time, men and women usually bow, although the more cosmopolitan may shake hands. Often, people will bow and shake hands simultaneously! Ask your advisor for advice about how to greet people who are older and younger than you, your peers, and other categories of people you will meet in Japan. When in doubt, always ask someone, preferably older than you, for suggestions.

3. Use of Names

First names are generally not used in Japan. Most Japanese use the family name followed by san (Mr./Miss/Mrs.), sensei (literally, “teacher,” but used in addressing not only professors but also physicians, dentists, politicians), or the title of the person being addressed (e.g., Tanaka Kyoju / Professor Tanaka, Tanaka Bucho / Director Tanaka, Tanaka Gakucho / President Tanaka). If you are in doubt and there is no one immediately available to ask for advice, use san. Since your name may be difficult for Japanese to pronounce, you may be asked to provide a nickname, e.g., “Mak-san” for Mr. McDonald. Japanese may use nicknames or first names among themselves but foreigners should refrain from doing so until they are asked!

4. Entertaining Friends

Invitations are extended either in person, by telephone or on printed invitations for formal receptions or dinners and all should be taken seriously. If invited to a meal, it is likely that it will be at a restaurant rather than at someone’s home. It is polite to arrive on time, to take a small token of your appreciation (a potted plant, flowers, sweets), especially if you are going to a private home, and to say thank you afterwards by telephone, postcard, or letter.

  • When eating Japanese food, never stick your chopsticks into rice, since it is associated with the rice bowl placed in the funeral altar.
  • If you are visiting a sick person at home or at the hospital, do not bring a potted plant or flowers that change colors frequently, since the former associates the sickness with being “rooted” (prolonged), and the latter, with the sickness being worsened.
  • The numbers “4” and “9” are to be avoided in a gift or at other times because 4 = shi, has the same sound as the word of death (shi), and 9 = ku as the word of suffering (ku).

5. Status of Women

The status of women in Japan is complex and cannot be characterized in simple terms. Slowly, there is a growing number of professional women and professional women’s associations. More women continue to work after getting married and having children. However many companies have separate programs for women, usually non-career track, and follow practices that would be considered discriminatory in other societies. For a typical couple, the female spouse is still generally expected to do all of the cleaning, cooking and other chores, whether she is working or not.

Mass media often report that women in Japan are more “genki” (vigorous, active) than their male counterparts. Single women are said to be enjoying their lives, spending much money on travel abroad and shopping. Housewives are active in networking themselves for various objectives, e.g. volunteer activities, co-op, community services, recycle activities, study circles, and many others. The traditional Japanese value of “ryo-sai ken-bo” (“good wife, good mother”) is changing.

Unlike other countries where a “couple” is the usual social unit, in Japan it is typical for only the husband to be invited to business gatherings or to weddings for company employees. Exceptions are frequently made for foreign visitors depending on the occasion, but female spouses should not take their exclusion as a personal slight. Japanese women, on the other hand, usually hold their own women-only functions, including overnight trips to hot springs. It is quite common for two colleagues who have been working together for a lifetime not to have ever met the other’s family.

Western visitors, particularly women, are frequently appalled at some of the blatant sexist attitudes manifested in the popular media and entertainment industry.

6. Dating Patterns

Dating patterns are on the one hand changing rapidly, while on the other hand remaining quite traditional. The omiai (“matchmaking” often misinterpreted as “arranged marriage”) is still prevalent. This is when two people are introduced by friends or go-betweens who have first investigated the family/personal back grounds of the two parties to ensure a degree of compatibility.

While dating is common, the underlying assumption between two Japanese is that marriage is the eventual objective. Therefore, foreign visitors must be sure to make their intentions clear to avoid any misunderstanding. Do not be surprised to hear the terms “girlfriend” or “boyfriend” used frequently in casual conversation, since they usually simply refer to female and male friends

7. Tipping

One of the pleasures of living and traveling in Japan is the absence of the custom of tipping in everyday life. In staying at hotels, taking taxis, dining out, having groceries delivered, ordering “de-mae” (telephone orders for noodles, sushi, etc. from a nearby shop), having something repaired in your home and the like, no tipping is expected or necessary. Hotels and more expensive restaurants will add a 10-15% service charge, but the same cheerful service without the expectation of a tip can usually be expected in even a simple noodle or coffee shop. However, if you request out of the ordinary services, it may be polite to leave a tip.

8. Sense of Privacy

Foreign visitors frequently comment on the different sense of privacy, both physical and psychological, between them and the Japanese people. Physically, the Japanese are accustomed to living in smaller spaces, so one room not only serves many functions, but several people must also share the same space. Thus, in the home, it is only recently that children in upper-middle class families have begun to have their own bedrooms. Small children frequently share the same futon with their parents even into elementary school.

A typical Japanese office will consist of a large open area with perhaps one or two private offices in the rear. Desks are aligned in a row, face-to-face under conditions that foreigners would find difficult.

In the typical hospital or dentist’s office, the doctor will examine the patient not in an enclosed private office, but frequently in a curtained-off area or, if no undressing is involved, in full view of a patient being checked by another doctor in the next chair! Facilities could be described as spartan and adequate compared to the almost homelike and often luxurious settings of doctor’s offices in other countries.

In the bank, when conducting a transaction or using the cash machine, it may be disconcerting to find someone standing right behind you.

Foreign visitors are often taken aback by what they consider to be very private and personal questions (“Do you have a boyfriend?,” “Why aren’t you married?,” “How old are you?”). They should realize that these are questions that are often asked of each other by the Japanese in television and newspaper interviews and are not regarded as prying, nosy questions! In a society where human relationships are so important, there are attempts to build intimacy across vertical social structures. Sometimes, they are the only English phrases that a Japanese person may know, and it may be an attempt to make “small talk.” A good way to defer answering is to return the question to the questioner, or replying in a joking manner. Always smile!

9. Physical Contact

There are differences between foreigners and Japanese in regards to physical contact. As a general observation, foreigners dislike physical contact with strangers, while Japanese seem quite indifferent or inured to it. In addition, while Japanese avoid physical contact with friends and family members, foreigners indulge in it freely. A commuter in a crowded New York subway is careful to avoid any physical contact with the person next to him/her, whereas in Japan, the typical commuter has no choice but to be pressed against several people. Bumping someone on the street is considered rude abroad, whereas it is a common occurrence, without even an “excuse me,” in Japan. On the other hand, hugging and kissing among friends and family—even after a long separation—is uncommon in Japan. Japanese who have lived abroad will be more accustomed to the more effusive greetings of foreigners, but generally speaking a warm handshake and grasping of the other’s arm is within the comfortable parameters for the average Japanese.

10. Drugs in Japan

The Japanese attitude toward narcotics of any kind, including marijuana, is very severe. Importation or use of drugs will lead to incarceration until the time of deportation, and permanent barring from Japan. An individual can be arrested for use of drugs several weeks or months after the fact. There are absolutely no exceptions to the severity with which the law is applied. There have been cases of arrest and deportation of overseas students because of possession of marijuana.

11. Drinking Alcohol/Smoking

In contrast to the strict laws and public attitude toward use of narcotics, the Japanese are very tolerant of what to Westerners may appear to be excessive drinking and public inebriation. Beer, sake and whisky are available everywhere, including convenience stores, on trains, and in almost all dining establishments. Most business entertainment takes place at night, and it is common practice for office colleagues to have a drink after a long day’s work before going home, frequently after 10 p.m. Visitors to Japan, especially women, often find it quite annoying to find the trains after 10 p.m. filled with men in high spirits, some of whom may wish to practice their English conversation with them. The Japanese tend to excuse whatever an individual may say or do under the influence of alcohol. The next day in the office, no reference is made to the previous night’s behavior. This may be one aspect of the Japanese compartmentalization of behavior according to each situation rather than universal behavior applicable at all times.

If you do not wish to drink, it is perfectly acceptable to refuse and request a substitute. It is true, however, that the Japanese in general find alcohol to be a great social lubricant, which frees them from the rigid structures of their social and business obligations and customs.

Although planes, subways and commuter trains, their stations and platforms, hospitals, public offices, department stores, etc. practice the “no smoking” policy or provide separate smoking corners, smoking is not as strictly regulated as in the U.S. or in other places. An increasing number of restaurants have designated areas for smokers and non-smokers.

* At Nanzan University, smoking is forbidden in all buildings. You can smoke only at the designated smoking corners / places. Please do not smoke while you are walking and toss away your cigarette butts. Please refer to page 44 for designated smoking areas at the university.