Travel

7 Cultural Differences That Make Visiting Japan That Much Cooler For Americans

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Japanese hospitality is so deeply embedded in the culture there’s actually a name for it: omotenashi. | Jason Hoffman/Ted McGrath/Thrillist
Japanese hospitality is so deeply embedded in the culture there’s actually a name for it: omotenashi. | Jason Hoffman/Ted McGrath/Thrillist

Japanese culture is everything American culture is not. Reserved. Humble. Formal.

My first encounter with Japanese culture left my travel mates and I in shock. When one of us left a wallet on a coffee shop table, we thought it all but lost -- only to find it sitting there untouched 45 minutes later. As we OMG’d, we realized the wallet could just as well have been a stack of Benjamins and we’re pretty sure no one would even blink twice. The Japanese play by the rules.

And why rock the boat, when your country is ranked No. 2 in overall best countries? The ranking published by U.S. News & World Report earlier this year placed Japan just behind Switzerland -- not too shabby. The Land of the Rising Sun was hailed for its business-friendly environment, quality of life, “distinctly urban lifestyle,” natural offerings, and cultural heritage -- which you can witness not just in the temples, food, and fashion, but also in daily interactions big and small.

That’s the key. Japan boasts mouthwatering sushi, breathtaking greenery, and countless holy shrines en masse, but the real reason you’ll probably fall in love with Japan is the people and culture. Even though Tokyo is New York City on steroids, this metropolis of 9 million still manages to feel clean, orderly, hospitable, even zen-like. So what do the Japanese know that Americans don’t? Japanese cultural values make this one of the most welcoming, fascinating, and eye-opening places for Americans to visit. Here are the biggest cultural differences you’ll notice on a trip to Japan.

In Japan, talk quietly, talk less… maybe just don’t talk at all

In the States, public spaces like trains, busses, waiting rooms, even elevators are fair game for making a racket. You see people texting and taking calls (sometimes having a full-blown meltdown on speaker), eating snacks, filing their nails, making small talk with whover’s around, listening to music on their headphones so loudly that it becomes a shared experience, etc.

In Japan, even the most hectic and crowded spaces still maintain a level of peace and quiet. Talking on your phone and eating in public is frowned upon; there are even signs to remind you to put your phone in “Manner Mode” or silent mode so that it won’t bug other people.

“Excessive conversation and nervous chatter make the Japanese uncomfortable.”

“Japan is a small country with millions of people living in close, compact, urban areas. This requires that they live harmoniously and with politeness,” said Sharon Schweitzer, cross-cultural coach, attorney, and author of Access to Asia. “The Japanese will revert to silence on a train in order to give way to contemplation and peaceful reflection. Frequently, train passengers will close their eyes and give the impression of sleeping. This practice communicates wisdom and self-control; excessive conversation and nervous chatter make the Japanese uncomfortable.”

For Americans, silence is awkward; we like to chat, and for other cultures, this comes off as excessive or aggressive. “Japanese communication is subtle, almost an art form,” said Schweitzer. “It is what cultural anthropologists describe as high context, meaning to ‘read between the lines’ of speech and body language. The Japanese tend to dislike the straightforward, direct communication style of U.S. Americans and other Westerners.”

Being polite means blending in

Take a bird’s eye view of NYC and it might look like a million ants going in different directions. Tokyo, on the other hand, probably looks more like Level 3 of a Lemmings game. Everyone stays in their lane when they’re walking in one direction. Heaven forbid they walk on the other side -- that would disrupt the flow of pedestrians walking in the opposite direction, a major sidewalk sin.

“In Japan, the highest goal is not distinction, but synthesis and harmony,” says Schewitzer. There’s a Japanese proverb: “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” Japan’s collectivist society values group harmony and unity (also known as wa) more than the desires of the individual, like um, some other cultures we know.

In Japan, when a train says “Departs at 1:04 PM,” you better make damn sure you’re on that train by 1:03.

When was the last time you stood in a single file line to get on the train? Or wore a surgical mask when you had a cold because you were considerate enough to not spread it to anyone else?

“Most Japanese will wear a mask when they experience even the mildest cold or allergy symptoms,” said Amy Tadehara, a senior travel consultant at InsideJapan Tours, who has lived in and studied Japan, its culture, and language for most of her life. “It is another manifestation of the effort to maintain social harmony -- a simple but courteous act to prevent spreading germs to others, in crowded conditions, when coughing or sneezing, or just breathing!” she said. “It is also a visible effort that helps many Japanese close themselves inward, to try to become, paradoxically, inconspicuous and protect their own privacy.”

The Japanese take punctuality very, very seriously

In Japan, when a train says “Departs at 1:04pm,” you better make damn sure you’re on that train by 1:03. Should the train depart at 1:05pm, that is considered late and the train station will profusely apologize, and may even issue passengers a delay certificate as proof to their boss/school/whatever that their tardiness was at no fault of their own. Japan’s obsession with precise punctuality is so extreme that in both 2017 and 2018, a train made national headlines when it apologized for departing the platform 20 seconds early.

While Americans are generally fine with running 5 to 10 minutes late, don’t expect the same leniency when you’re visiting Japan. “Respect for others includes respect for their time. ‘On time’ for a business meeting, for example, usually means 10 minutes before the start time,” said Andrew Bender, a three-year resident and tour guide who has been working for Japanese companies for about 10 years.

Jason Hoffman/Ted McGrath/Thrillist
Omotenashi is one of the subtle-yet-perceptible cultural phenomena that makes traveling to Japan that much better. | Jason Hoffman/Ted McGrath/Thrillist

You can lick the streets clean in Japan

The Marie Kondo declutter craze might be in full effect in the States, but keeping tidy isn’t a novel concept in Japan. “Traditionally, Japanese people believed that every place had its own gods: in the kitchen, the mountains, the river, etc.,” said Keiko Matsuura, who works at the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO). “To keep places clean, it was believed, was important to keep the gods happy and to bring good karma.”

The Japanese have a lot of respect for Mother Nature (as we all should) and it’s pretty obvious by looking at their immaculate streets. Just try to find old gum on the sidewalks. Trash on the streets? Not a chance. And the subways? I was floored the first time I took a seat on a Tokyo subway. No graffiti on the windows, the hand rails were sparkling, and the whole thing looked like a shiny new toy. It makes the New York City subway feel like a moving petri dish.

Ironically, I was surprised to see so few (if any) public trash cans, which seemed counterintuitive -- where are these people actually throwing their trash? But the reason you won’t find trash bins anywhere is because of a 1995 terrorist attack from invisible and lethal sarin gas that left 6,000 people injured and led to the removal of public trash bins. Over the years, the locals have been accustomed to holding on to their garbage until they come across a trash bin. And the Japanese are big on recycling, so it’s super easy with their color coded disposal bins -- it’s like Recycling for Dummies. And if you don’t keep up your trash duties? Your neighbor will make sure you do. Gomi toban is the idea that neighbors look after each other’s trash to ensure it’s done properly, taking Neighborhood Watch to a whole new level.

It’s not unlikely you’ll see a girl dressed as a cartoon character casually strolling the streets.

In fact, most Japanese schools don’t employ janitors. “Instead, each class is assigned certain areas of the school to clean. I spent several weeks one summer cleaning our toilet when I studied abroad in high school,” said Alexandra Feig, who has studied and worked in Japan on and off for about eight years. “Intrinsically it is a value [but] it's something that you learn and take on as you grow up. I can promise you, after I cleaned the toilet, I was a lot more careful about how I left it, since I knew there was a chance I was going to be cleaning it later.”

The moral of the story? Don’t be that asshole American that litters in Japan.

Everything in Japan is convenient, efficient, and just works

One of the most fascinating things about Japan is how technologically advanced the country is and their drive for efficiency and organization. Everything, and I mean everything, is done methodically -- something we Americans can learn from (I’m looking at you, US Post Office and the DMV). I enjoyed an entire meal at a sushi restaurant in Tokyo without ever having spoken to a server. I sat myself, ordered and paid on the iPad at our table, and minutes later watched my spicy tuna hand roll come flying down the conveyor belt and stop right in front of me. Genius, right?

Vending machines are everywhere. Cigarettes. Soup. Batteries. Beer. Coffee. You name it and it’s likely available in a vending machine somewhere in Japan. I recall the first time I came across a canned coffee vending machine in Tokyo -- it was such a simple (and brilliant) concept, yet we don’t really have anything like it in the States. These vending machines eliminated my morning run to Starbucks because they were on every corner of every block. And the ready-to-drink cans actually tasted way better than most coffee I’ve had at coffee shops. Who do I speak to about bringing this to America?

Dressing up like a cartoon character is perfectly acceptable

The Japanese love cartoons. It’s not unlikely you’ll see a girl dressed as a cartoon character casually strolling the streets and not even garner the slightest nod of a head turn from passersby. Heck, the Japanese police force even has an adorable mascot called Pipo-kun, because who can ignore what a cute little fuzzy animal has to say? Cosplay, Harajuku culture, kawaii (aka cute culture), and maid cafes are all widely common in Japan.

Have you ever watched a Japanese game show? Enough said. Want a square-shaped watermelon that costs $100? Go for it. But how does all this quirky, wild subculture coexist in a culture that values subtlety?

“The reason is precisely because they are opposite,” explains Tadehara. “The kawaii, cosplay, and character culture of Japan is a soft, comforting, and unique release from a society based on rules and formalities. It is why it is not uncommon for middle aged businessmen to attach a keychain with a cute character to their briefcase.” Which makes sense, in a way: for a country with so many societal expectations, embracing some sort of creative expression seems inevitable.

Tadehara agrees. “[Cosplay] softens the edges of a society that is rigid. The prevalence of cosplay and cartoon characters reveal a culture that has organically found a way to embrace an escape from the formalities of Japanese life, while not challenging those formalities. The result is that both aspects of the society coexist in harmony.”

But that robot show and restaurant that you keep hearing about? Save your money, it’s a tourist trap.

Good service and hospitality are deeply ingrained in Japanese culture

“The main place you see that difference [in cultures] is in the hospitality. It’s in the way you see people treating each other with more respect, patience, and understanding,” said Steve Aoki, world-renowned DJ who has been traveling to Japan since he was a kid and recently launched a Spotify podcast with All Nippon Airways called “Aoki ’N Air,” where he talks about his personal experiences with Japan.

No matter who you come in contact with in Japan, everyone from taxi drivers to hotel staff and even pedestrians will go above and beyond to make sure tourists feel welcomed and taken care of. Unlike other countries where locals can make you feel bad for not speaking the language or huff and puff when you hold up a line at the train station, Japanese hospitality is so deeply embedded in the culture there’s actually a name for it: omotenashi.

“The concept of omotenashi is said to originate from the Japanese tea ceremony, in which the practitioner’s care and thoughtful preparation on behalf of their guests is paramount to the experience,” said Tadehara from InsideJapan.

Recently, awareness of omotenashi has spread globally since TV announcer Christel Takigawa explained the term during her speech on behalf of Tokyo’s Olympic bid in 2013. She described it as the spirit of selfless hospitality that the Japanese would offer to international visitors during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Omotenashi is one of the subtle-yet-perceptible cultural phenomena that makes traveling to Japan that much better. I left Japan feeling humbled and wanting to extend that hospitality to any tourists I came across back home in the States. I’m not alone in that sense. “I think that’s something that rubs off on you when you travel to Japan,” said Aoki. “You start embracing that beautiful sense of hospitality in your everyday life.”

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Leila Najafi consults for startups while traveling and writing about LA. When she's not exploring every nook and cranny of LA, you can find her at a coffee shop on Abbot Kinney, a Pilates class, or on a plane to her next adventure. Follow her around the world at @LeilasList.