Four Things About Japan That Confuse Westerners

Four Things About Japan That Confuse Westerners
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Forget about anime and sushi! During the two years I lived in Japan I got an inside view to a few small idiosyncrasies about the culture, that you may have never heard of.

The fun thing about living abroad is all the small and almost insignificant cultural differences that are hard to pick up on, unless you’re there for a long time, sitting in a teacher’s room… bored out of your skull. Basically, there are certain things you only learn when you have a desk job in another country, most of your internet access is blocked, and your main form of entertainment is paying attention to things around you. Unless you actually want to grade papers.

We all know about Japan’s pop culture and major cultural aspects such as green tea and samurai, but what about the little stuff?

I lived in rural Japan from 2006-2008 as an English teacher. I am by no means an expert on the culture. I figure, I’m kinda like a two-year-old in Japan years, so my observations are definitely no more sophisticated than that, but maybe you’ll find them entertaining. Here are a few…

1.) People in Japan Never Say “No”


You can ask your friend to go to a baseball game, not knowing that she hates baseball, and she’ll probably reply with, “chotto muzukashii desu,” which loosely translates to the task or event being a bit difficult. Or maybe you want a restaurant to make you a special dish, and they don’t have the ingredients. “Chotto….” Or you want permission to take a day off? You guessed it; that’ll be a bit muzukashii. Don’t press them, you’ll just keep getting the same response back. It’s like, instead of saying flat out “no,” people in Japan often take the passive route because they find saying no impolite–at least in my experiences. So! Give it up, man, go to the ballgame by yourself; if you’re even allowed to take the day off for it.

2.) No One Says Anything When You Sneeze


I’m kinda obsessed with a good Gesundheit. I get so hyper-enthusiastic that I often respond to a cough instead of a sneeze. Hey, it’s nice to pay attention to others, right?

One day I was sitting in the office, with all the other teachers around, and there it was: a lone sneeze followed by… silence? The silence was so uncomfortable to me that I went, “Bless you!” and the teachers turned their heads to me and asked what that meant. There is no translation! I looked in my electronic dictionary, my paper dictionary, and the internet (yes, they had the internet back in 2006). I realized that I couldn’t really explain why we say “Bless you!” in America, except some vague recollection that it had something to do with the plaque in Europe, maybe… If you know why feel free to comment on my ignorance. As for the blessings, eventually I grew accustomed to letting it go.

3.) Where’s the Central Heating or AC?


The middle school I worked at had kerosene heaters in every classroom. I had never seen a kerosene heater before, but I guess if you leave it on all day you will die. With that in mind, at the end of every class period the heaters were turned off, windows were opened, and the room was ventilated. Towards the end of my stay there, an Elementary school I often visited was upgrading to a pellet stove. This is one of my favorite examples of how Japan, at least rural Japan, is not as we’d expect—given the perception of Japan as a technology giant. Oh, and those windows I mentioned?—they were the school’s “AC.”

I dealt with the kerosene heater situation in my unequipped apartment too, but needless to say, some of the first words I learned in Japanese were “air conditioner” and “installation.”

4.) Unique but Effective Bathroom Etiquette


Here in the US, where I’m from anyway, if you have a single bathroom situation the habit is to turn the handle and see if it’s locked, and if not, to barge right in, giving zero warning. This is all well and good unless the lock is broken or you have an absent-minded occupant who forgot to lock. In rooms with stalls, we’re not much more polite, as the typical behavior is a look through the cracks or under the door to see if there are feet.

The Japanese have devised a beautiful system. Either with a door or a stall, you knock. If someone is inside, they do not have to yell “I’m in here!” The occupant simply knocks back. I tried this once in a restaurant in the States, and apparently the person waiting thought they’d made me mad and apologized upon my exit. So much for trying to share the wisdom of an elegant and effective system.

I could go on forever, but that might be chotto muzukashii…

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Lisa Robin Benson

Lisa wants people to pause in a moment of awe and go “woah“! She may or may not write for unruly stowaway.

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