In this extract from her new book, Megan Andrew explains how to avoid causing offence when travelling in Japan.
While none of the following points are actually against the law — you won’t be arrested and thrown in jail for them — they are offensive and will earn you some stares and maybe even some clucking. In some instances, you will just be inconvenienced.
DON’T: BREAK OUT THE TISSUES
Sniffing is acceptable, but blowing your nose is not. If you really have to blow your nose, excuse yourself to go to the bathroom. Better yet, take an antihistamine or cold tablet before you start sneezing and snivelling.
A man we know, let’s call him John, had Very Important Business with Very Important People. The deal was dependent on good impressions. Unfortunately, he had an allergy attack just before walking into the meeting. When John has these attacks in any Western society it’s gross enough, (huge sneezes, old-man blowing of his nose — it’s a tsunami of snot, basically). Well in Japan that was all magnified tenfold. John didn’t know about the “no-blowing-of-your-nose” etiquette and clearly revolted everyone in the room with his excessive use of tissues. Needless to say, he didn’t get the deal.
DON’T: EAT AND DRINK WHILE ON THE GO
Despite having vending machines on every corner, it is uncommon and considered rude to eat or drink while walking along. Actually, it is considered rude to eat in public, even on the train.
Eating on long distance journeys is absolutely fine — there are even special Obento (lunchboxes) sold on train platforms for long distance travel. However, eating on a local commuter train is not acceptable.
The history behind this particular etiquette is multifold: from others not being able to afford the drink/food to the fact that whatever you’re eating may smell and offend others.
There are exceptions to this rule and there are places where it is acceptable to tabearuki (eat and walk) — at the fish markets and at festivals where street food is on sale.
DON’T: BE A LITTERBUG
It’s hard to find a rubbish bin on the streets in Japan, however, most vending machines (and there are many of them) have a small facility to dispose of your used cans. Despite a considerable lack of rubbish bins, there is no litter on city streets. It is expected that you discard your rubbish considerately at one of the very few public rubbish bins or take it home with you.
We were in Asakusa in 2018. We were early and waiting to meet up with a walking tour of the area and dying for a coffee. I was so desperate, I bought us each a hot canned coffee (can’t recommend that option in any circumstance). Neither the vending machine I bought the coffee from nor any of the surrounding vending machines had rubbish bins attached to them. I ended up holding terrible coffee in cans for nearly the whole trip until a local shop owner took pity on me and disposed of the offensive trash for me.
DON’T: RELY ON A CREDIT CARD
Credit cards are accepted in the big department stores, convenience stores and amusement parks. Taxi companies in the main centres also accept them. However, many local shops, street vendors or local bars do not accept credit or debit cards. It is best to have some yen in your wallet and use cash, especially outside the major centres.
Tipping is considered insulting in Japanese culture. It is thought that good service should happen anyway and if you tip someone for it, you risk a moment of awkwardness that would best be avoided.
DON’T: TALK ON MOBILE PHONES IN THE TRAINS
There are signs everywhere and announcements regularly on trains to turn your phone on to silent mode. It is considered mei-waku (bothersome to others) when you talk loudly on your mobile phone in crowded areas. For local journeys, you are expected to ignore the call and only message. On long distance journeys, it is expected that any phone calls be taken in the area between carriages.
DON’T: HUG AS GREETING
Public displays of affection are rare in Japan. Even when you know someone well, people don’t hug or kiss when meeting in public. Watching people bow in greeting though is a great pastime.
DON’T: ESPOUSE AN OPINION LOUDLY
Public displays of opinion are also rare in Japan. Most people in Japan are unwilling to speak their mind outright. The major exception to this rule is in support of their favourite sports team or sporting idol. An extension to this rule is, of course, no fighting. Losing control is the ultimate no-no in Japan.
It is best not to cross on the red, even when there is no traffic to be seen. The Japanese don’t generally jaywalk. Set rules are very rarely challenged. The thought behind this is “What if a child is watching?” — we are all role models, right?
I overheard a young couple walking to the station at the end of their evening, debating the quandary of whether to cross on the red or not. We were all waiting for our pedestrian crossing to turn green and the young man started walking. The couple clearly didn’t know each other that well, I heard the young woman quite concerned that her date had started crossing on a red. She couldn’t bring herself to follow him until our green walking sign was displayed. She said “How can you do that?” and was clearly concerned about not showing her dismay publically and also not breaking pedestrian crossing rules.
DON’T: TAKE YES OR NO AT FACE VALUE
Don’t assume yes means yes. “Hai” is translated as yes, but is more like the English “aa-ha” or “I hear you”. It is best not to assume people agree with what you are saying when they say “hai”. Time will tell if they agree. Also Japanese rarely use a precise “no”. More likely a “maybe” or “we will try our best”. Time will tell if their “no” was definitive or a softer way of letting you down.
DON’T: USE NEGATIVE QUESTIONS
Negative questions are a great source of confusion for many native English speakers. However, they really are quite logical in Japanese. In Japanese, you agree or disagree with the speaker — not the question (as in English). For the below example, know that Mari has a brother, but no sisters.
Yumiko: Mari, don’t you have a sister?
(Japanese response): Mari: Yes (I don’t have a sister).
(English response): Mari: No (I don’t have a sister).
Confusing, right? It’s best to avoid them altogether.
DON’T: GET PERSONAL
Privacy is valued, so it is best to keep the relationship building talk impersonal. Sport and your favourite sports team are great topics of conversation, as is the weather. The seasons are very distinctive in Japan, so a change of season is a big deal. Food is another good topic. Be careful not to state your strong preference for something though, as it can be interpreted as a desire and the recipient may feel obliged to bring one to you.
A Sports Traveller’s Guide to Japan: The Essential Guide to Enjoying International Sporting Events by Megan Andrew. Reprinted with permission. Published by New Holland Publishers (NZ). newhollandpublishers.com. RRP $24.99</i>