Japanese Customs that Are Shocking! (Or Not)

I recently read an article on Business Insider written by Asta Thrastardottir, someone who lives in Brooklyn. I don’t know her connection with Japan, or if she has any. She wrote this article to show Japanese customs that may shock foreigners.

Well, I wouldn’t say they’re shocking, nor would I even say they’re correct. Let’s take a look at these.  I’ll just provide a little commentary.

Number 4 is avoided at all cost.

The number 4 is pronounced the same as the word for “death” in Japanese. So, the 4th floor or room number 4 is considered unlucky. However, most buildings I’ve been in have a 4th floor. I’ve seen room number 4, as well. It’s not avoided at all cost. I think the 13th floor in North America is avoided more than the 4th floor is in Japan. Anyway, it is pretty true in hospitals. No one wants to stay on the death floor.

Blowing your nose in public is considered rude.

I think this goes for pretty much anywhere. It’s considered rude, and most people sniff. They sniff constantly. That gets annoying, too. But one thing I find is that younger people will blow their noses.

Tipping can be seen as insulting.

I’ve never seen anyone do this, so I don’t know the reaction, though I have heard it’s more likely that the server will run after the person to give the money back, thinking it’s a mistake.

Walking and eating is seen as sloppy.

Nice to see they mention that it’s okay to eat ice cream on the street.  This is generally quite true. Not sure why this is shocking, though. And while it’s frowned on to eat on a train, for long distance trains, they sell food. You can eat. On local trains, I’ve also seen people snack on food.

In Edmonton, it’s actually illegal to eat or drink on the LRT or bus. You can be fined.

There are designated people who will push you into a crowded subway car.

Not anymore. They don’t want to risk someone touching a woman and have her sue. It’s simply not done anymore for that reason. And also, there’s the possibility of injury.

People will sleep on the trains with their head on your shoulder.

I’ve seen this often. It happens. Lots of people sleep on the trains, and when their head lands on someone’s shoulder, they just try to ignore it. I think the best example of this is when I saw a junior high school girl fall asleep and her head was resting on a middle-aged businessman’s shoulder.

There are toilet slippers for the bathrooms.

Yes. They do this in many Japanese restaurants and izakaya, as well as any business where you’re asked to remove your shoes and wear slippers. Even where I work!

You must always bring a host a gift.

It’s extremely common. But I’m not sure how this is shocking, because it’s common to bring a gift, like wine or something, to a party you’re invited to in Canada.

Pouring your own glass is considered rude.

Depends on the situation, but this is something that is often true. Though I think it’s more courtesy when someone pours your glass, I have seen many people pour their own glass.

Slurping your noodles is not only seen as polite – but it also means you have enjoyed your meal.

This is true. It’s normal to slurp your noodles in Japan. I don’t do it, because whenever I’m eating noodles, I’m often at lunch from work, and I haven’t perfected my slurping. If I try, I’ll get the soup on my shirt.

I have to make one extra comment about the temperature of the noodles. They are so hot that they can burn. People also eat them so fast, a big bowl in only 5 minutes, that they’re at risk for throat or esophageal cancer. The hot soup and noodles can damage the esophagus so much if eaten frequently that cancer has been known to develop (told to me by a doctor).

Sleeping in capsule hotels in rooms barely bigger than a coffin is very common.

They are common near train stations, and they are used when people miss the last train. Quite often, women are not allowed. A good alternative is a manga or internet cafe, which have private booths with either a chair and computer or a sofa, computer, and TV. They even have showers and free drinks.

My verdict on this article is that it’s not shocking at all. Some of these things are a little surprising, while others are not at all surprising. And some are no longer true, such as the subway pushers, unless they exist somewhere other than Tokyo. I’ve been on the subway in Tokyo during rush hour where people push themselves into the train. Can’t get on? Well, they wait.

I think what shocks me is when I’ve been in a store for an hour and they’re still welcoming me to the store. Or the incredibly profound and rather embarrassing apology for getting my order at McDonald’s mixed up with another customer’s. The manager came out while we were surrounded by many customers and apologised so strongly with a deep bow. I felt a little self-conscious in that situation. I was already rather conspicuous, being the only foreigner in there.

If you’ve been to Japan, is there anything that has surprised you? Or how about any other countries? Let me know in the comments.

28 thoughts on “Japanese Customs that Are Shocking! (Or Not)”

  1. I think sniffing is more rude than blowing your nose.. When I hear people sniff constantly, I’m tempted to hand them a tissue and give them the mommy look.. “If you don’t blow your nose RIGHT NOW I am going to raise hell!” Why is this even “shocking”? What is shocking in this list? I don’t think I see it. :O

            1. I’m surprised. Or maybe I’m not. With what people can publish these days easily and for free, I’m sure you can find anything on Amazon.

  2. Let me try out a theory: The less you know about a country, the more likely you are to come up with wide-ranging and absolute statements about how things are done there.

  3. “shocking” really? Or is it just exoticism at its best (and by that I mean its worst).

    My two cents on the thing:

    “Number 4 is avoided at all cost.”

    Meh… As JayDee says, maybe in hospitals… Elsewhere, the number four is treated pretty much like any other numbers. I’m sure it’s similar to 13 in the West… Most people don’t care, a few superstitious fools are… well… superstitious fools…

    “Blowing your nose in public is considered rude.”

    Yes,it kinda is, but it isn’t the end of the world if you do it either. I mean, it depends where you are I guess.
    In a sense, it makes sense. You don’t get rid of your other bodily fluids in public, why would snot get a free pass?

    “Tipping can be seen as insulting.”

    Yes, definitely. In most countries, not paying your employees real salary so that they need to rely on tips to make a living is considered insulting.

    “Walking and eating is seen as sloppy.”

    Yes, and it’s true in all civilized countries I believe.

    “There are designated people who will push you into a crowded subway car.”
    I always heard about them, never saw them… Oh wait, maybe that’s because Japan is not just a few blocks and train stations of Tokyo.

    “People will sleep on the trains with their head on your shoulder.”

    Yes, it happens. However, every time I’ve seen it happening, the owner of the shoulder wasn’t too excited about it.

    “There are toilet slippers for the bathrooms.”

    Yes, not in every bathroom, but in bathroom of public places where you take your shoes off, there are some. Would you want to walk barefoot or only wearing your socks in a public bathroom? Me neither.

    “You must always bring a host a gift.”

    Yes. Isn’t it the case in every civilized country?

    “Pouring your own glass is considered rude.”

    That statement without context is just lame. You’re not supposed to do it when you go and drink with your coworkers in a “nomikai” i.e. a semi-official drinking event. In every other context, it’s perfectly fine.

    “Slurping your noodles is not only seen as polite – but it also means you have enjoyed your meal.”

    That thing is one pet peeve of mine.
    No, slurping your noodles is not seen as polite nor impolite, it’s just seen as normal.
    And no, it doesn’t mean you’re enjoying the meal, it’s not way of thanking the cook either. I’ve read that so many times on the English-speaking web, and strangely not a single time in a Japanese’s mouth
    The only explanation I have ever heard beyond “I don’t know, is there a reason why we do it?” is that it prevents you from burning yourself as you’re eating.

    “Sleeping in capsule hotels in rooms barely bigger than a coffin is very common.”

    Oh yes, they’re so common that in four years in Japan, I have never seen one, and I’m not even sure they exist outside of downtown Tokyo and possibly Osaka.
    And yeah, as Jay Dee, Manga/Internet café all the way, if you have nowhere else to stay for the night.

    1. Thanks for your insights.

      I think snot gets a free pass because quite often you can’t stop it. It just comes out, especially on a cold day, while you’re eating something hot or spicy, or when you are sick.

    1. Do it only if you feel you can do it without splattering the soup everywhere. There’s a technique, I think. I don’t do it because it’s not normal for me.

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