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.”