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Konnichiwa! Tips and Tricks for Living Abroad in Japan

Konnichiwa! Tips and Tricks for Living Abroad in Japan

“Tolerance, inter-cultural dialogue and respect for diversity are more essential than ever in a world where peoples are becoming more and more closely interconnected.” —Kofi Annan, Former Secretary-General of the United Nations.

Japanese culture is an intriguing enigma. Even those who have traveled the country extensively will agree, when it comes to Japanese culture, the understanding of it is a lifelong undertaking, especially for those who interact with the Japanese on a business level.

Though I can only hope to scratch the surface, I’ll attempt to cover some of the more basic and important cultural rules to follow when visiting and living in Japan: It’s all about the body language. Much of communication in general is done non-verbally. Nowhere is this as true as Japan.

Communicate the right kind of body language

A common way to say hello is to bow. This doesn’t always mean that one must bow to 90 degrees and make a big production out of the practice. More commonly, it can just be a quick bow of the head. This casual bow is used among friends. A bow closer to 30 degrees is used for those higher-ranking than you. A bow much lower than that is more commonly used in religious practices, or for apologizing for a monumental screw-up.

    Useful Japanese Phrases:
  • Good morning: Ohayoo gozaimasu
  • Good afternoon: Konnichi wa
  • Good night: Oyasumi nasai
  • Goodbye: Sayonara
  • Pleased to meet you: Doozo yoroshiku
  • Thank you very much: Doomo arigatoo gozaimasu
  • No, thank you: Lie, kekko desu
  • Excuse me: Sumimasen
  • Do you speak English?: Eigo o hanashimasu ka?

It can be a bit tricky to know when to bow and how much. In general, you don’t need to bow back to street peddlers and retail clerks. If you’re unsure of a person’s status and don’t want to offend him/her, go with a deeper (30 degrees or so) bow just to be safe. Try not to look rigid and uncomfortable when bowing, which is the key to losing the awkwardness.

Other non-verbal communication involves taking hands out of pockets when speaking with someone, not crossing legs when standing, sitting on the edge of one’s seat to look interested during conversation, and not showing the soles of one’s shoes. When sitting on tatami mats, start sitting on the shanks of the leg and heels with toes crossed and the back straight. Men may then move to sit cross-legged, but women should keep their legs to the side.

Also, take care not to touch someone you do not know, such as a pat on the back - it’s a no-no.

Dining Tips

To be a chef in Japan is to be skilled in an art form. Always appreciate the presentation of a dish before digging in.

If there are multiple dishes on a tray, instead of finishing them one by one, sample each one and pick up your rice bowl for bites of rice in-between as a sort of palate cleanser (always pick up bowls and bring them closer to your mouth. It is simply easier this way, especially when using chop sticks). If there is a lid, place it upside-down on the tray while you’re consuming the food in the bowl, then place it back on top when finished.

Place chop sticks on a rest, and especially not straight up in the bowl. When taking food from a communal bowl or plate, use the end of the chopsticks that do not touch your mouth.

Also? At a sushi restaurant is not the time to practice one’s drunken Japanese language skills with the sushi chef.

Prepare yourself before you go

  • Learn some Japanese words. It is always advisable to learn at least some of the language of any place you may be visiting.
  • If you’ve never learned how to use chopsticks, figure it out before you go. Once you get the hang of it, they’re simple to use.
  • Plan on wearing things that will hide any visible tattoos you may have, as Japanese society considers tattoos to be taboo.
  • Last but not least, always try to be humble and be sure to always express gratitude. This will go a long way. Use any Japanese words you know to open up the conversation when possible.

Tips from Twitterverse:

@SemBarista says, “Learn to be comfortable with people making noise while eating (esp. noodle) b/c it's part of their culture. Learn how to use chopsticks and beef up your skills in sign language b/c not many of them are able to speak understandable English.”

@Muzachan says, "When in Japan, take good care about air humidity, you will experience both extremes: in summer the outdoor air is very humid, while during winter the indoor air can become extremely dry - I actually had some dry-skin issues! So during winter, take into consideration having an air humidifier."

Tips from Reddit include getting gifts of candy for people when you travel, but to be careful to avoid giving them in bundles of four (which is the bad luck number in Japan, China, and Taiwan given its close sound to the word ‘death’). Also, get ready to answer a lot of questions from locals on your opinion of Japan. Most posters agree Japan is culturally isolated, so you will find that as a foreigner, you’re fascinating to the locals. Visiting public onsens (public baths) is also recommended. Don’t be afraid to be naked with others -it’s not taboo in Japan.

Ready? Explore gap years in Japan.

Photo Credit: RazvanPhotography / BigStockPhoto.com and rusak / BigStockPhoto.com
Photo of Kristin Addis

Kristin Addis is a native Californian and former investment banker who quit her job and sold off all of her belongings in favor of becoming a nomad in Asia. Now she travels solo seeking off-the-beaten path adventures. There is almost nothing she won't try! She blogs at Be My Travel Muse. Follow her on Twitter @bemytravelmuse and Google+.