A Visitor’s Guide to Good Behaviour in Japan

You know how it goes. “When in Rome…” Except, when the crunch comes and you are confronted with a cultural anomaly, do you revert to form? If you are an impatient, hot-headed individual, like me, with a fierce sense of personal freedom, and have a Japan trip coming up, read on.

Japan is different, developing in isolation as an island nation at the eastern edge of civilization for millennia. Then, 4 centuries ago when most on the planet started bumping into each other through improving transportation, Japan closed its doors to the outside world for 250 years. Japan and Thailand (although with very different strategies) are the only parts of Asia/Pacific and the New World that successfully avoided colonization. In Japan’s case, this can also partly be attributed to the magnanimous post-war leadership of Douglas MacArthur supported by the likes of brilliant anthropologist Ruth Benedict (whose “Chrysanthemum and the Sword” is a must-read). 

Japan is enjoying a massive visitor boom. Its unique, fascinating culture and stunning natural environments have been discovered. Contrasting traditional Japan interlaced with modern, cutting edge Japan adds to the fascination.

Just as well. Japan is also leading the charge into a 21st century world of declining population. An obvious necessity on a finite planet already struggling to find resources and deal with waste. But a rapid decline in population like that experienced by Japan also creates a basket of challenges, from millions of abandoned homes to extreme labour shortages. The Government is attempting to open up immigration to ease the pressure somewhat, providing a welcome, prosperous new life to many people from places that would not be able to offer them the same opportunity. But there is considerable uncertainty amoungst the Japanese populace about letting in strangers with such different ways. Nationalist movements throughout the western hemisphere pushing back against immigration are something it would be nice to not also witness in Japan.

So, if you are coming here, you can help. Help reassure the Japanese people that outsiders are OK. Rather than give you a long list of specific do’s and don’ts, below are three key principles. Remember these principles, and the details will take care of themselves.    

1.      Rules. Japan is a country of rules. Maybe that originates from six centuries of Shogunate rule, essentially military dictatorship, that only ended a century and a half ago. In those times people could be beheaded on the spot for not bowing at the right angle. So get the picture? The rule is the rule. There is absolutely no flexibility for you. Most importantly, it matters not whether it is a stupid rule, nor whether anyone can even remember the reason and purpose of the rule. Certainly the “where I come from we do it this way…” attitude is right out of bounds. The “Not Invented Here” syndrome was invented in Japan. The rule is the rule. Please conform, with a smile. You are welcome to pound your head against the marble basin in the seclusion of your bathroom afterwards.

2.      Order. OK, so 1. Rules above is really just a corollary of this, but I’m listing these things in the order they will probably become obvious to you. Japan loves order. Trains depart at 10:59, not 11:00, which is a completely different time (and probably a different train departing). Love it or loathe it, the order in Japan is certainly a refreshing change from many other Asian countries. Things work, like clockwork, so you can focus on having a good time. Of course, order in a crowded country means that you need to queue for most things. Be sure that you do so orderly. Many places even have a “seriken” system which means that the moment you walk in the door you need to take a number to determine your rightful place in the queue. Of course, Japanese are human so they too need to occasionally relieve the stress built up by this almost obsessive/compulsive order. A visit to a Karaoke box for example will demonstrate plenty of fun, noisy, drunken and disorderly behavior. Businesses make a living out of providing a controlled environment to let it all hang out. Which leads me to…

3.      Consideration. Visitors to Japan are constantly surprised to see the extent to which Japanese folks wear face-masks to prevent spreading their colds. It’s manifestation of the national pastime of not wanting to cause bother to others. Throwing out the household garbage for example has a whole etiquette so as not to trouble the neighbours. You won’t see many public garbage bins in Japan – you are expected to carry your garbage home and dispose of it there through the proper channels. Japanese people usually courier their big luggage to the airport or hotel when travelling around this country, both to make life easier for themselves and everyone else on crowded public transport. Japanese generally speak softly in public so as not to be a nuisance, almost as quietly as that other former Imperial island race, the British. If you herald from a large, populous, continental country (I can think of two on opposing sides of the Pacific), setting your vocal volume to about half the average level back home would be appropriate. Japan is famous for its group mentality – the group matters more than the individual. So it’s not all about you (or me).

If you can be big enough to observe these three principles, your visit to Japan will be mutually more meaningful for both you and your hosts. You may also help prevent development in Japan of nasty nationalism and hate crimes that are blossoming around the globe as cultures and ideologies clash. You will also inspire me to behave.

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