Even though Japan can seem westernised on the surface, Japanese life still remains fairly rooted in tradition.
We have endeavoured to put together some of the Japanese customs which still pervade everyday life.
We hope these give you some insight into the Japanese ways.
Customs and Culture, in the home and relating to others
In the home
It is normal in Japanese homes to take your shoes off in the entry of the home.
They will think that you are well-mannered guests if you place your shoes tidily together facing back the way that you came in.
In the home you wear “house slippers”. There are special toilet slippers left outside the toilet which should only be used in the toilet room. You must be aware Japanese people have small feet and the slippers are usually a little small for some Australians (especially boys).
Sometimes, especially if the grandparents live with the family, there may be a small shrine in the house for the family ancestors.
The water in the bath is only used to soak in - on no occassion should soap be used in the bath itself - you should wash and rinse yourself in the washing area before getting into the bath. The temperature of the water can be up to 45 degrees Celsius. The whole family uses the water and in many cases the guest will have their bath before the other members - you must not let the water out.
In most modern homes the toilets will be state of the art modern toilets with buttons on them for everything, but if you were to visit a more traditional home the toilet would be on the ground and a female would have to use a squatting position. These types of toilets are quite common in public toilets. Public toilets do not always supply toilet paper or towels to dry your hands.
It is considered poor manners when having conversations to: leave one’s hands in one’s pockets, stand with one leg crossed over the other, lean against a wall or door and chew gum.
Whilst seated: Japanese may cross their legs at the ankles or knees - but consider the ankle over the knee too informal even for men.
When seated on a low sofa – to show respect you would sit forward on the edge of the sofa not lean back.
It is also impolite to stick one’s legs out in front of them when seated on a chair or tatami. Whilst seated on tatami, both men and women should start seated on their legs and may shift to a less formal position - a women would not sit cross-legged though.
Even though it may seem self expression doesn’t exist is Japanese culture, one only needs to go beyond “reading” the facial expression and one can recognise emotions being expressed.
Affection is an emotion, which has only recently been expressed by young people in public but is still considered improper behaviour. The same self-restraint is apparent in verbal expression so as to avoid excessive displays of displeasure and loud speech.
Greetings and gestures
The traditional greeting is bowing from the waist.
The Japanese word for this is “Ojigi” which means - expressing respect and affection - the degree of the bow depends on the relationship between the people involved and the situation in which bows are exchanged.
Waving a hand in a downward movement means - to come here.
Two people link little fingers when they make a solemn promise.
When oneself points to their own nose this indicates themselves.
When counting with fingers, the fingers are formed into a fist for the count of 5 instead of starting as a fist as we would.
Clapping hands in worship at a Shinto shrine is done in order to attract the god’s attention and to concentrate one’s own mind.
- A “meishi” or name card is always exchanged without fail when meeting someone for the first time.
- Eating and drinking whilst walking in public is considered rude in Japanese society but is becoming more popular with the younger generation. Slurping drinks and noodles isn’t impolite in their society as it is in Australia.
- Itadakimasu is said before eating.
- If someone has a complaint to make about someone or something it will be done in an indirect way so as not to upset the person.
- The traditional costume, Kimono, is nowadays worn on formal or ceremonial occasions. There are different types of kimono for use at different occasions.
- There is also the Yukata, worn both by men and women as informal dress at home, in Ryokans or for attending local festivals.
- When travelling by taxis, there is no need to open the doors as the driver has control of this. There is also a hierarchy order for where one sits.
- When served at a department store or a bank, money is to be placed on the tray provided, as will be the change.
School children commence elementary school at the age of 7 for six years.
After elementary school there are 3 years of Junior High, which is then followed by 3 years of Senior High. Students attend either sport or culture club activities after school hours most days of the week.
Teachers hold much respect in the community and by their students.
If a child disobeys the school rules or gets into any trouble outside school hours it would the school that would provide the appropriate punishment and the parents would respect this decision.
You will find Japanese students don’t speak up, so you don’t know what they are thinking. They are not used to speaking English and will speak very little or maintain silence. You will need to constantly initiate conversation and ask questions. They are basically shy in nature, not good at approaching or speaking with others which is attributed to the fact that Japan is composed of one race, one language and that people understand without having to explain.
The Japanese student constantly worries that they are not understood, have spoken wrong English and that people will laugh. They are a very proud inside and can become introverted if laughed at.
A casual “come over” invitation is seen by the Japanese as a form of greeting and should be disregarded as an open invitation. Unless a formal invitation, with day and time given then you are not expected to ‘turn up’ without notice or to invite yourself.
Don’t be offended if the Japanese student does not expect you to open the present in front of them, this is usual. Always show consideration of their feelings even if the gift isn’t wonderful.
When saying ‘yes’ it is not always meant as an acceptance – it usually indicates that the other party has understood what you have said (possibly) – again the fear of saying ‘No’ as not to offend can be the reason behind this.
Japanese culture places great emphasis on group harmony, he who acts as an individual is ignored. They do not act independently of others and unlike Australians, where we promote and praise individuality; Japanese depend upon each other to provide reassurance.
Behaviour / Emotions
The Japanese do not say negative things or speak of their dislike and will not say the truth if it might hurt others. Public recognition for a public figure is OK. However, personal recognition for achievement may receive blank or troubled expression (show opposite emotion) out of consideration for others. If a mishap occurs such as a fall, miss the train etc. the Japanese will smile instead of showing anger. Japanese do not give up their seat on a train/bus for others; this is because they are embarrassed in front of others.
Loss of Face
The Japanese traditionally are meant to show outward respect to individuals, even if not warranted. It is essential not to criticise nor raise your voice. A raised voice can cause concern from a Japanese person if they do not understand the reason, an explanation will help.
At the Table
Japanese will slurp soup, noodles etc.
Japanese consider it rude to blow their nose in public and will sniff rather than be seen in public blowing their nose. They use a hanky only to wipe sweat on their face or wipe their hands and use a tissue for the nose, which must be thrown away.
Everything may take longer so when planning to go out, give the student plenty of notice and a time to be ready. Japanese are not good at “on-the-spot” plans; they need to learn this is sometimes part of the Australian way. Also any chores may have to be shown how to do them the Australian way, even down to the simple task of washing the dishes as this is done completely different in Japan to Australia.
Be careful that your ‘Aussie’ humour is not open for misinterpretation.