Japanese Etiquette Guide - 10 things you CAN get away with without offending Japanese manners.
You may have read a lot about what NOT to do in Japan. The list of manners particular to Japan is long and intimidating to most westerners, but it is not all one way. While you’ll have to tighten up your etiquette in some regards, in others you’ll perceive daily actions that would be unthinkable back home. Well, possibly thinkable - but ill-advised in countries where people either (A) have guns or (B) are easily capable of disemboweling you without one.
Here are ten things which are OK in Japan but on the sketchy side in western countries. Note, however, that just because they’re common practice for Japanese people, this doesn’t mean you’ll be afforded the same privilege. There is, indeed, one rule for some and another for everybody else. If this bothers you, then you’d best start making other plans!
1. Slurp your soup and noodles.
Aim for a sound that crosses the Sarlac beast from Return of the Jedi and a vacuum cleaner struggling with a penny, and you’ll blend in perfectly.
2. Keep everyone updated regarding the regularity of your bowel movements.
When asked “How are you?” don’t feel obliged to opt for the traditional “Good, thanks,” “Fine” or “Not so bad.” Feel free to retort with “I have diarrhea” or “Constipated, thanks. And you?”
3. Sniff loudly and frequently.
This shouldn’t be the kind of sniff one would use to sample the scent of a flower or a subtle perfume. Aim instead for the kind of industrial phlegm-hock one would employ to dislodge a leech from one’s sinus. Don’t blow your nose in public however. If it’s a good ‘un, just share it with the pavement. Everyone else does!
4. Stare freely at anyone who looks a little out of place.
In Japan they say that the nail that sticks up gets hammered down, but really it just gets ogled into submission. 40 year old women sporting bunny ears and fairy costumes may be ignored, but anyone who “ain’t from ‘round these parts” must be watched with the utmost vigilance.
5. Sleep anywhere, everywhere, and on anyone.
Sleeping in public is kind of embarrassing in the west, right? The thought of drooling down one’s tie in the library, snoring in class or crying out some random name on the bus during one’s slumber puts most of us off. Not so in the land of the rising sun. Feel free to put your books aside (unless they’ll make a comfy pillow) and grab forty winks in your Japanese lesson. Alternatively, snuggle up to the salaryman sitting next to you for a little subway snooze. Forget the A-team making helicopters from half-eaten cabbages and bulldog clips; the real skill is to turn anything and anyone into a makeshift bed.
6. The age-old question
Once you’ve dispensed with the introductory bowel chat, you can move on to the next stage of pleasantries. “How old are you?” is a common way to proceed. Just put it out there. Don’t ask what year they graduated college and then work it out. That’s the coward’s way. Also, feel free to trap people into guessing your age. If you have to guess the age of a Japanese woman, however, add 75 years to how old you think they are, and you’ll probably guess about right.
7. Comment on the size of womens’ heads or men’s noses.
If you notice that the man you are talking to has a big nose, then you really should let him know. Otherwise, he might be carrying on under the illusion that it’s average, or just slightly big, or even worse – irrelevant to your current conversation. He might be planning to enter a “Mr Average Nose” competition so to spare everyone’s blushes on the day, just deal with it there and then. Likewise, if you’re talking to a woman, then you should fully assume that she’ll be delighted to hear about her miniscule head. All those years clamping it in a vice - when the other kids were out happy-slapping and sniffing glue - will have finally paid off. If she reacts angrily or looks a little nonplussed, then it won’t be your fault; obviously her brain must be incredibly small.
8. Reveal your low expectations of others.
If you see a foreigner using chopsticks or reading katakana, you should gasp and clap with all your might. If you have a fish or peanut to hand, lob it in their general direction with one hand and, with the other, take a quick picture of their happy little face.
9. Throw political correctness to the wind.
If you have any theories about the special, unique development of the Japanese brain in relation to other Asians, or why women are unfit for management, then here’s the place to share them. Likewise, if you want to ask an immigrant “When are you going home?” then do so. Don’t expect that his Japanese wife and kids enrolled in local schools will be considered reasons to stay. If you are in conversation with a woman and find the topic drifting to politics, you should apologize and offer to change the topic to cushions, cute animated movies or handbags. Otherwise, she might die.
10. Lighten up about lighting up.
The brilliance of those hand-free child carriers is that they leave you free to spark up without having to offload the little terror first. Smoking around children is nothing like the taboo it has become in western countries, so let the guilt (like the smoke wafting into their undeveloped lungs) drift away. Also, since secondhand tobacco enriches the flavor of most foods, be generous in restaurants and izakaya. Don’t selfishly expect someone else to provide all the smoke for you!
So, these are some of things you might encounter in Japan; hardly earth-shattering, but interesting nonetheless. Of course, compared with the truly shocking behavior that faces the Japanese people who visit the shores of our home countries, these are trivial. I mention them largely because I think they’re quite funny.
If you’re in Japan or have lived here for a time, please share any other customs you’ve noticed. There are bound to be a few!