A week or so ago I saw a foreigner in a grocery store standing in line and talking on her cell phone. After living in Japan for a while, I’ve grown accustomed to this not being an acceptable action and my first thought was, “how rude?!” She was a foreigner, with a suitecase, so I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt and decided that she must just be on vacation and doesn’t know Japanese etiquette. After all, there’s still plenty I don’t know! This got me thinking about all the subtle differences in Japan that you wouldn’t know about if you’ve never visited Japan! I can only compare Japan to my native country of the United States, so here’s what I’ve found so far (and I’m sure there are more).
Money and Paying at Stores
Japan is primarily a cash based society. Many places take credit cards, but from what I’ve seen and experienced, most people use cash. The yen is in coin form for anything under 1000 yen (10 Japanese dollars), so dropping coins can be a big deal here! If you drop coins, you could possibly dropping 1 and 5 dollars at a time! Also, many businesses will have a small tray at the cash register for you to place your money in. It’s often blue, but some businesses have different styles. This tray allows you to pay without having to exchange the money in your hands. Sometimes the person at the register will hand you your money back and sometimes they will put it on the tray.
*photo credit here.
The surgical mask: are they wearing it for me, or to protect themselves from me? I really don’t know. Twice when I have been sick I have been advised to wear a surgical mask so I wouldn’t spread my germs and cause an ‘epidemic,’ as it was phrased by a Japanese woman. I obliged but could only wear it for so long… A couple of times I’ve asked my students if they were sick when they have been wearing masks and sometimes the answer is no. So this still leads me back to why are they wearing them in the first place? I have an adult ESL student who is also a doctor – she told me that when SARs was spreading around the country like wild-fire the government suggested that everyone start wearing them. SARs is not as prevalent now, but people are still wearing them. Interestingly enough, I stumbled on an article on the blog Quirky Japan Blog. According to this blog post, the Japanese wear them to prevent themselves from getting sick, to prevent you from getting sick when they are ill and to help protect themselves from allergies such as hay fever. The Quirky Japan Blog goes on to say that the WHO states that there is no real evidence that a surgical mask will prevent the spread of sickness, so they are actually ineffective.
When I was in training in Okayama, every morning all of the trainees would take the elevator together to the second floor of Honbu to the training center. Inevitably, someone would be attacked by the elevator. We didn’t know why, but the elevator was out to get us. We eventually learned that the open button will in fact hold the elevator doors open and the close button will immediately close the elevator doors. You may ask yourself, “How is this different from American elevators?” Well, next time you go on an elevator, stand in the doors – I bet they won’t close on you. Also, get on the elevator and immediately press the close button – I bet they don’t close. This is not the case here in Japan. There doesn’t seem to be much of a motion sensor on elevators and so the doors close whether you are in between them or not. When my mom came to visit, I rushed her into the elevator with the warning that she might get caught if she took to long. When we were inside I pressed the close button and she said, “You know those don’t really work…” before she could finish the doors had closed. Elevators in Japan are really quick and I’m not the only one who’s noticed!
Toilets and Bathrooms
I was amazed and appalled by the toilets in Japan. Depending on where you are, you can sit on a nice, comfy, heated toilet with a constant flushing sound or you may be expected to squat above a hole in the ground. Every day of the week I’d opt for the comfy seat, but depending on where you are you will not get an option. This leads me to the topic of Japanese bathrooms. There are sooooo many differences that you wouldn’t even think about until you got here and were stuck in a Japanese squat toilet stall, with no toilet paper and then no soap or paper towels to wipe your hands with.
As I stated many toilets have multiple functions: bidet, sound masking noises, heated seats and warming. Many toilets will have a sink in the back tank area that will automatically turn on when you flush the toilet. These are just some of the features, more can be found here. I also just recently read about a toilet that is controlled by someone’s smart phone. I’m not sure of the reason behind this option….
When you are in a public restroom there may not be any paper towels or soap, and it’s not because the staff is lazy and haven’t kept up with their cleaning schedule (more about how that would NEVER happen in Japan later); I’m unsure about the soap, but I’m pretty sure the lack of paper is due to attempts at trying to decrease waste. I’ve begun seeing air dryers here and there, but nothing like you see in the States. Many people in Japan carry around little towels and I’m sure one of the reasons is to dry their hands after washing them.
High Tech Toilet Seat Controls
photo credit here
Low Tech Toilet Instructions
photo credit here
Japan is one of the cleanest countries I have ever been to. Both of the family members who have visited me have commented on how clean it is. It’s quite amazing! Remarkably, there are not a lot of trashcans on public street corners and sometimes its difficult to find one – but people just carry their trash with them and throw it away when they find a dumpster. When you do finally find a trashcan, you will probably have the option of either recycling or throwing your trash in the garbage. This is one of the things I love most about Japan. It seems that the Japanese are very environmentally friendly. I would assume that this has to do with the very little landmass they have and therefore don’t have much room for trash dumps. Either way, people recycle their trash, clean up after themselves, and try not to leave messes that would inconvenience another person. Workers in restaurants, stores, or any other public facility are constantly tidying up the area and nothing is ever out-of-place or messy. As stated before, you will almost never have a problem in a public bathroom and you will always be pleased with the cleanliness of a restaurant.
This is barely even scratching the surface of the little quirks in Japan. Overall though, I don’t think Japan has any more or less quirks than any other country in the world – the difference is that it’s not what I’m used to (and I don’t think I ever will get used to it!). I’m sure that a Japanese person visiting a western country would think we were just as different!