Living in Japan

Jane from GaijinOK - 06-29-2023

5 min read

7 Common Errors to Avoid in Japan

Japan holds a variety of norms and regulations that are not always stated. As a person who is not native to the country, it is likely that you will not be directly informed if you are making a mistake. To avoid any uncomfortable situations, here are seven things that should be avoided while in Japan!

7 Common Errors to Avoid in Japan

1. Maintaining Footwear Inside the Home

An image of a pair of shoes is depicted in this picture. The illustration is of two pieces of footwear side-by-side.

Although residents of many American and European homes take off their shoes as well, the practice is even more widespread in Japan. When visiting certain public establishments, such as temples, shrines, clinics, and eateries, people usually take off their shoes and put on a pair of slippers from a nearby rack. As a result, wearing socks with sandals is a popular fashion trend, so people don't have to expose their feet to the floors of these buildings.

2. Neglecting to Slip Out of the Bathroom Slippers

An image of a pair of bathroom slippers is presented in the accompanying illustration.

In Japan, you must switch up your footwear when you go to the restroom. After you take off your outdoor shoes and put on the house slippers, you're probably thinking you're all set. But once you reach the lavatory, it's time to discard the slippers and slip on a new pair. This is a very sanitary practice, since bathroom floors are usually quite dirty and it's best to keep that dirt from being spread around the house.

During a meditation class at a temple, I walked halfway down the hall before noticing I still had my bathroom shoes on. I had to sheepishly return to the restroom to change into the more appropriate temple slippers, which were a plain, brown color rather than the hot pink of the restroom pair.

3. Modifying Your Arrangement

If you have an allergy or dietary restriction, it would be beneficial to inquire about adjusting your order. Nevertheless, you may confuse the wait staff and they may politely decline to make the requested change. If you have a valid reason for questioning the ingredients or altering the meal, it is recommended that you carry a food allergy card with Japanese translations to display to your server.

4. Expressing Direction in a Public Setting

Pointing in public is something that is done quite often, but it is important to be aware of cultural norms when doing so. It is not necessarily rude, but it can be seen as impolite in some cultures. To avoid causing any offense, it is best to be mindful of one's surroundings and the people around them when pointing.

A photograph of a hand pointing is depicted in this image. It is a reminder that there are job opportunities available in Japan, and the image serves as a visual cue to explore them.

In many cultures, it is thought of as impolite to point at someone while making a comment about their looks. Such behavior is also considered rude in Japan, even when the finger is not obviously pointing at a person. Instead of pointing, you can indicate your meaning by nodding your head or using an open palm gesture.

5. Partaking in Food in Public Settings

Eating in public places is an activity that is often encountered. It is a normal part of life, and can provide a social setting for people to interact and enjoy a meal together. People who eat in public can be observed in restaurants, cafeterias, parks, and other public areas. This can be a great way to get out and enjoy the company of friends or family.

This issue is a bit more complex, as it is not necessarily discourteous to consume food in public in certain conditions or at specific times. For instance, festivals, theme parks, or grabbing a corn dog from a 7-11 and eating it right outside the store are all acceptable. The problem arises when it happens in a busy public space, for instance, a bustling sidewalk or on public transport. Nowadays, this is even more complicated as eating necessitates the removal of your mask, something that is definitely not recommended in highly populated areas.

6. Consumption of Alcohol in Open Spaces

It is generally not permitted to consume alcoholic beverages in public places.

A lot of people don't think about it, but there is another side to the "eating in public" rule. It's absolutely okay to have a non-alcoholic beverage (you can find vending machines everywhere!), but consuming alcohol in public places is not illegal, yet it is still not looked upon positively. Visitors from countries where public drinking is unlawful are often surprised to find out that in Japan, it is actually permitted. Nevertheless, having a drink in densely populated places, on transport, or any other crowded area won't be appreciated by those around you.

Exemptions do exist, such as drinking in the company of acquaintances while celebrating hanami (the tradition of viewing cherry blossoms), provided that you are in an open area with only a few people, or if you are attending an outside gathering that sells alcohol.

7. Conversing on Railway Cars

A representation of a train is depicted in the image. It is an illustration of the common mode of transportation in Japan.

Chatting quietly with a buddy in close proximity is acceptable, yet speaking boisterously, particularly in a packed train, is thought of as impolite. In many other countries the normal volume of conversation is often louder than in Japan, so it's easy to converse without understanding that your voice is louder than those around you.

When I'm filled with enthusiasm or elation, I tend to increase the volume of my voice, something I must keep in mind when I'm on a train or in another serene public place in Japan. Additionally, it's considered to be very impolite to talk on the phone while on a train; if you receive a call, you'll have to wait until you're off the train to answer it.

There is usually a lot of leniency extended to foreigners who unintentionally make mistakes. Therefore, don't worry too much and just do your best. People will value your efforts in trying to respect the culture of the country you are visiting. What kinds of errors have you unknowingly committed when abroad?

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