There's no doubt that everybody experiences culture shock in Japan. Japan is a country so different from everywhere else and some of these differences can really surprise you.
We've compiled a list of some culture shocks that we've encountered when moving to Japan. Some of these may be hard to believe if you've never been to Japan before and some might be helpful for those who plan on visiting or living in Japan in the future.
Mama Chari: The Symbol of Japan's Urban, Suburban Life
Chari means bicycle and mama chari is a bicycle with a child seat attached that's mostly used by mothers. Owning a car can be expensive in the city and doing everything by foot can be tiring and time consuming, so mama chari quickly became the popular alternative. They're great for running errands in the neighborhood while bringing their children along.
These bicycles are designed to be easy to pedal and some are even electric powered. The name comes from the add-on child seats that come with a seat belt and sometimes a protection from the rain.
Mama Chari seems dangerous for the kids, but since Japan tends to have low accident rates, they're a viable and popular option for city life.
No Trash Cans Anywhere
Have you ever had trash to throw away trash, and realize that there are no trash cans in sight? Japan greatly reduced the number of trash cans after the Tokyo Subway Sarin Attack, where bombs were placed into public trash cans.
If you have trash that you want to throw away, there are some trash cans in train stations, but the fastest way would be to throw it away at a nearby convenience store.
Bidets Are Everywhere
Japan is probably one of few countries where there are more bidets than trash cans in the country. They're not just a household item and are very common in public restrooms as well, with many different functionalities.
Whether you actually use the bidet or not, I think that everybody can agree that the seat warmers are nice to have in the winter months.
Butts Are Clean But Hands Are Not
Washing your hands with soap doesn't seem to be a norm in Japan. You often see businessmen walk out of the bathroom after slightly wetting their fingers, or even completely ignoring the sink.
Flu outbreaks are common in Japan and could easily be prevented if everyone starts washing their hands more since it spreads mostly through trains and public facilities.
Indirectness: In the Culture and the Language
Japanese society is known to be indirect and it's in the language as well. There are several levels of politeness in the Japanese language and as you get more polite, the form of expression becomes more indirect.
Here are two examples:
- "I'm sorry"
- casual: sumimasen(すみません)
- formal: moshiwake gozaimasen(もうしわけございません)
- formal direct translation: "I have no excuse for my actions"
- "Please contact me"
- casual: gorenraku kudasai(ごれんらくください)
- formal: gorenraku wo machi shiteorimasu(ごれんらくをまちしております)
- formal direct translation: "I will be in the state of waiting for your contact"
In both phrases, the casual way to speak communicates directly. As your expression becomes formal, you are rephrasing your words to indirectly imply that you are "putting yourself below the other person".
When the language is structured to imply that indirectness is polite, it's understandable why people tend to be indirect in Japanese culture.
Excellent Customer Service With No Tip
When it comes to customer service, Japan is definitely second to none. Great customer service is usually something that's more common in high end hotels or restaurants, but in Japan, it's an everyday experience. Even in places like convenience stores and normal restaurants, the workers are constantly speaking formally to you while paying attention to every little detail.
As nice as it is to have, this level of customer service seems unnecessary for such common places. Providing great customer service requires a lot of training and responsibilities and most of these work positions have high expectations while paying close to minimum wage without tip.
Smoking Indoors is Allowed
While smoking laws are getting stricter in the streets, smoking indoors is still common. Many restaurants have a separate section for smoking and some bars and cafes allow smoking everywhere inside their facility.
Trains Are Almost Never Late
Japanese people are very punctual and the same goes for trains. Most of the time, the trains in Japan arrive exactly on time. In the case that it does run late, they make sure to notify the passengers, even if it's only a minute.
Inside the trains, you often hear the train conductor make an announcement apologizing and informing the passengers exactly how many minutes late the train is.
If something occurred and the train is significantly late, they hand out a piece of paper at every big station which says how many minutes the train was late for. This is useful for businessmen working in strict companies, to have valid proof that they were late because of the train.
These are some culture shocks that surprised us when we started our life in Japan. If you have any culture shocks you would like to share, please leave a comment and if you're interested in living in Japan, read our article to see why now is the perfect time to take that leap of fate.