Top 10 Things to Know Before Studying Abroad in Japan
Do you love Japanese culture? Are you ready to study abroad in Japan? Before you take off for a summer camp or a semester abroad, there are a few keys things you’ll want to know about Japanese culture. Although Japan and the United States are close allies and have quite a few similarities, travelers to Japan are often struck with a sense of weirdness or vast difference. Questions like “Why do they do that?” or “Isn’t it strange that this is customary here?” are bound to run through the mind of a visitor to the Land of the Rising Sun. With a little extra preparation, we hope to prepare a novice visitor to Japan with the top 10 things to know before you arrive.
Never, ever be late.
Punctuality is a cornerstone of Japanese culture. If something is scheduled to start at 8:00am, you need to be there by 7:45am. You’ll notice, especially on public transportation, that people are always running or speed walking to their next destination. Lateness is not at all accepted or acceptable behavior. For example, we have had past participants who would get text messages one minute after the class was due to begin, wondering if everything was OK, with instructions for how they would be rescheduling the class. If you are running even one minute late meeting someone, text or call to let them know. A good rule of thumb is to always arrive earlier than expected, and setting your alarm or watch early will help you do that.
Get ready to take your shoes on and off all the time.
Whenever you enter into a private space, such as a host family home or school classroom, you will need to remove your shoes. Please always have socks with you as barefootedness is an absolute no-no. Most places have a lobby area in the front with cubbies for you to store your shoes. For your host family stay, you need to bring “house shoes” which are like slippers or flipflops that you only wear inside. The house shoes should not be worn outside.
It is clean. Like REALLY clean
One of the first things you will notice about Japan is how clean everything is — the people, the homes, the streets–it’s all very neat and tidy!
There is rarely litter, everything is cleaned regularly and graffiti is not a thing they deal with. It’s practically spotless! However, you’ll also notice a distinct lack of public garbage cans. They don’t really exist! You’ll need to hold on to any garbage you create during the day (to-go coffee cups, candy wrappers, water bottles, etc) until you get home and can dispose of it in your own home. Keep this in mind before you hop into line at Starbucks. Under no circumstances should you litter while in Japan. The Japanese take great pride in their country’s cleanliness and this would be extremely rude and inconsiderate.
In addition to clean public spaces, the Japanese are a very, very clean people. Here are just a few examples of how a value on personal hygenie manifests itself in Japan:
- People shower every single day, sometimes multiple times in a day. You need to be cognizant of your hygiene, always wearing deodorant and showering daily.
- Wet naps/moist towels are provided in nearly every restaurant and people are regularly washing their hands throughout the day, not just after using the bathroom.
- One of the most popular leisure activities in Japan is to go to a Japanese bathhouse!
- Across the country, people wear hygienic face masks which they believe will keep germs at bay.
- Most places have a special tray for you to put your money in and receive it from, so that you don’t have to hand it to anyone who could give you germs.
Finally, Japanese people keep their homes in nearly spotless conditions. No matter how clean you think your room is, it won’t be clean enough. Your standards of cleanliness are probably much different than your host family’s standards. Expect that your host mom will still clean up your room — even after you’ve done your version of a full cleaning. This does NOT excuse you from trying to keep your space as clean as possible, however. Your efforts will be noticed and much appreciated. If you don’t attempt to clean up after yourself, that too will be noticed.
Everything is smaller.
Being a mountainous island nation, space is at a premium in Japan. This directly correlates with the value the Japanese place on cleanliness and hygiene. Their cities are dense with people and there is little extra or unused space. The average Japanese home is significantly smaller than US homes, and you will need to get used to being in close quarters. That is true of public spaces as well. You will immediately notice that the social bubbles of the Japanese are smaller – by necessity. Trains and buses are likely to be crowded all the time, and you need to just push in!
Their expectations are high – and it’s ok if you fall short!
From a young age, Japanese children are held to high expectations, whether it be in their academics, appearance, or athleticism. They tend to be more fatalistic in their beliefs, meaning there is no room for mistakes because you do not get a second chance at something. This also means that Japanese people can be quick to judgement or grudge-holding. This is a country where you really only do get one chance a first impression!
Understand that you won’t be perfect and you may not meet all their expectations. But try your best!
The Japanese also enjoy giving advice, considering it their duty to correct “errors” they see in others. This has a lot to do with their value in conformity and prioritization of the group over the individual (more on that below). You should expect comments about your appearance (weight, clothes, hair style), grades, Japanese ability, etc. It doesn’t mean that they disapprove of you or believe you are lesser because of these qualities. It’s just a different way that Japanese people express their care for you.
Manners, manners, manners
The Japanese are a polite and soft-spoken people. Children are taught respect from a very young age, and are held to high standards. Here are just a few examples of the manners you’ll need to showcase:
- You’ll notice that people often bow upon meeting one another. The duration and deepness of the bow is proportionate to power and position of the person you are addressing. For example, a friend might get a fast 30-degree bow (nearly a head nod like movement) vs. a grandparent or school principal might get a slow, extended, 70-degree bow. It’s all about position and circumstance. For foreigners, a simple inclination of the head or an attempt at a bow at the waist will usually suffice but it’s always best to follow the example of the Japanese.
- The way you address someone matters a great deal. Americans tend to be quite casual in their inter-personal interactions, which is in deep contrast with the Japanese. The Japanese add suffixes to names in order to confer respect. Adding “san” or “sana” to the end of names is customary (example: Jane Doe-sana or Joe Smith-san). Usually children are content with just their first names, but you can add the suffix “chan” for girls and “kun” for boys if you like.
- Drawing attention to yourself as an individual is a huge no-no: don’t blow your nose in public, try to avoid eating while on the go, and don’t speak on your cell phone in crowded public areas like trains or buses.
- Get accustomed to saying “Gomenasai” and “Arigato Gozaimas” meaning “I’m sorry” and “Thank you very much”. It’s the best way to show appreciation, avoid offending, or apologize for offenses already made. Those phrases said with a genuine smile will take you far in Japan
Japanese people are likely to address you immediately in English.
Until you prove that you know some Japanese, most people are likely to address you in English. This can be hard when you are trying to learn the language or be immersed in it. It’s easy to revert back to your native language when everyone is speaking it to you. But try to always respond in Japanese to show them that you know some and are working hard to improve. They are likely to be excited and proud of you for trying!
It would be a good idea to make sure prior to traveling to Japan you know how to use chopsticks. It is the most common utensil used for eating although you may raise bowls to your mouth to make it easier to eat with chopsticks, especially bowls of rice.
Japanese cuisine is based on combining rice with one main dish and several side dishes. Japanese meals are served as small plates, with each dish being served separately. It contrasts with the Western-style dinners at home, where each individual takes helpings from the large serving dishes of food presented at the middle of the dining table. It is not uncommon to get 8-10 different dishes in a meal.
It is considered very rude to waste food. If you are not hungry, only take the amount of food that you will be able to consume.
Many restaurants and homes in Japan are equipped with Western-style chairs and tables. However, traditional Japanese low tables and cushions, usually found on tatami floors, are also very common. Tatami mats, which are made of straw, can be easily damaged and are hard to clean, thus shoes or any type of footwear are always taken off when stepping on tatami floors. When dining in a traditional tatami room, sitting upright on the floor is common. In a casual setting, men usually sit with their feet crossed and women sit with both legs to one side. Only men are supposed to sit cross-legged. The formal way of sitting for both sexes is kneeling.
You might notice that Japanese people are loud eaters. Slurping noodles or making loud noises while eating is actually OK! In fact, slurping hot food like ramen is polite as it shows that you are enjoying it.
You’re going to be busy. Downtime isn’t really a thing.
Downtime isn’t really a thing in Japan — they are not relaxers. The Japanese do not prioritize leisure time in the same way that people do in the United States or Canada. The work-life balance tends to be much more skewed towards work (or study). On weeknights, it is customary to not plan activities after work or school. Parents and students will return home and continue working or studying, with only a break for meal time. On the weekends, they allow themselves a little more free time, usually spending it watching TV, spending time outside or with loved ones.
In the context of a short program like our language camps or a long-term program like a semester abroad, you will be busy nearly all the time. You should expect to be go-go-go with little room for alone time or leisure activities. Most of your days will be spent busy with school, commuting, excursions & activities and spending time with the host family. It’s important that you mentally prepare for this type of schedule, since you might be surprised by the rigor and fatigue it induces. But just think, you’re making the most of your time in Japan! You can rest when you’re home!
In Japan, they focus their attention on the group rather than the individual. The United States is a highly individualistic country, so this is a huge contrast that can cause a lot of conflict, especially in regards to interpersonal interactions. The Japanese idea of ‘good for the group above good for the individual’ dictates their way of life and actions. They will always prioritize the group over themselves. For example: when employees go on vacation, they thank their co-workers for helping with their workload in their absence with words and small gifts.
“Saving face” is very important and dictates many actions. Anything that might be construed as potentially confrontational, embarrassing, shameful, is avoided and motivates many Japanese to act in a way that will not result in these feelings. Honne and tatemae are Japanese words that describe the contrast between a person’s true feelings and desires (本音 honne?) and the behavior and opinions one displays in public (建前 tatemae?, lit. “façade”). Most Japanese don’t discuss what they are thinking directly to others, which makes communication sometimes challenging.
If they think you won’t like an answer to a question you posed, they prefer to not directly respond it to avoid being offensive. Expect lots of “maybes’, when they mean no. Example: Can I go to Tokyo by myself? Response-“Maybe it is not a good idea and is not very safe.” Always ask to help clean or prepare dinner twice, because they are likely to say no the first time, and then give you the real answer the second time. A good rule of thumb is to be as polite and considerate as possible and just assume they mean the best, because they probably do.