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Japan can be a strange and interesting place for first time visitors. Japan has different customs, traditions, and some things that may seem normal in your home country may be the total opposite in the land of the rising sun. Since I’m sure not all of you live in America, Japan’s customs listed below might not seem strange to you, but when compared to American society at least, they can be kind of strange.

So what 7 things should you do in Japan but not in the good ol’ US of A? Let’s find out.

Not Tip for Service

Tipping is a huge part in the day to day lives of the average American. You tip your waiters, cabdrivers, bellboys, and bartenders. Everybody loves getting tips. In Japan, however, tipping is a definite no-no.

If you tip someone in Japan, they may be confused as to why you gave them too much money and they’ll insist that you take your change. Some workers may feel guilty about the extra money and not know what to do with it or if taxes need to be paid on it or if they should report it to their superior. Some employees may even see it as demeaning.

When nobody has to worry about tipping, the atmosphere is a lot more relaxed. Your waiter won’t be coming over to your table every five minutes to see how everything is. You eat your food, the waiter does their job, you pay for the cost of your food, and the waiter earns their fair wage. Everybody wins. Don’t tip in Japan.

Not Hold Doors Open for People

Okay, so this one’s not so much something you shouldn’t do in Japan, but you definitely shouldn’t be surprised when you see others not holding doors open or someone doesn’t do it for you.

In Japanese culture and society, it never became commonplace for males to hold open doors for the ladies. It’s just not something they’re used to doing over there. So if nobody opens any doors for you or if they seem super surprised when you do so for them, now you know why. Heck, even taxi cab doors open on their own – no need to worry about those.

Push and Shove on Subways and Trains

Trains and subways are like, super crowded in Japan especially in the cities around rush hour. To get on and off these crowded trains when they need to, Japanese people must push and shove a bit to get where they’re going before the doors close. It’s unavoidable. Because it’s so commonplace for people to do this, most often the apologies are glossed over as it’s just something everyone does.

If you find you need to shove your way out of a situation, here’s how to do it as politely and as respectfully as you can. First off, only push when you absolutely need to, and push gently and kindly with your body, not with your hands (if possible). If you’re carrying a bag or backpack, carry it in front or behind you so you aren’t smacking people with it as you pass through.

Also, you can let people know you’re getting off by saying “orimasu” (getting off) so they know why you’re pushing past them. Also, since people usually don’t apologize while pushing, if you do find you need to really move someone out of the way, you might as well throw a “sumimasen” out there just to be safe. For further reading on what to do (and not do) on trains in Japan, check out our How to be a Baka Gaijin (on Trains) post.

Yell to Get a Waiter’s Attention

Most of the time when you need something in a sit-down restaurant in America, you just wait for your server to come over to the table. Usually, it’s not too long because they need to make sure they meet your every need as they’re working hard to get your tips. Not so in Japan. In America, it’s considered pretty rude to snap your fingers or yell out for some service. In Japan, you can just yell out “sumimasen” and someone will be right over to help you out.

I actually had firsthand experience with this at a restaurant in Tokyo. My friends and I needed some water with our meal, and the waitress was just going about her job doing other things. When we realized she wasn’t going to come over on her own to check up on us, one of the guys yelled out “sumimasen” and she came right over to help us out. It feels a little strange at first to shout for service in a restaurant like this, but it’s just what they do there.

Slurp Your Noodles

In America, you’re not supposed to make slurping noises when eating anything. No slurping soups, noodles, or anything. In Japan, however, slurping is just the opposite. It’s polite to slurp. When eating ramen, soba, udon, etc, feel free to slurp as loudly as possible. Some say it helps to cool down the temperature of the hot noodles as you eat them, and others say it enhances the flavor. Whatever the reason, don’t be afraid to slurp away!

For many foreigners, myself included, slurping foods in this way just seems strange and I could never seem to get used to it so it’s just something I don’t do, even in Japan. For further reading on what to do and what not to do when eating in Japan, check out our How to be a Baka Gaijin (While Eating) post.

Lift Your Plates and Bowls

This kind of goes hand in hand with slurping, but in Japan, it’s perfectly acceptable to lift bowls up you your mouth as you eat them. This makes it much easier to shovel foods like rice and noodles into your mouth. In America, the bowls and plates are meant to stay on the table, and you’re expected to bring the food up to your mouth using your utensils. Japan (and I) think this custom is super dumb, so we lift the bowls up to our faces instead.

Drink Alcohol in Public

And last, but not least, one of my least favorite things about America, our inability to imbibe alcohol out in public. It’s really lame. In Japan (and a lot of other places, I’m sure) there’s no open container laws and you can drink some beers on the train back from school or work, out at the park, or by the beach. All with no worry of some police officer coming over to ruin your fun. In Japan you can drink wherever you like and it’s just great.

For us poor folks living in America, drinking out in public is a very bad idea and we have to do all our drinking activities in specified establishments or within the confines of our own property. Maybe one day it’ll change. Probably not though. For more info on how drinking works in Japan, you can check out our post on How to Drink in Japan.

And More…

These are just 7 of the things that are discouraged/encouraged in Japan but are the total opposite in America. I’m sure there are other things that conflict with other countries’ ways of doing things as well. But for us Americans, the above list is a great introduction into what things aren’t as common over in Japan as they are at home.


So tell me, have you ever been surprised by one of the above customs? Can you think of any others? How many of these Japanese customs are identical to how things are in your home country? Let us know in the comments!

Header image by Jeff from Houston

  • piderman

    In the Netherlands you can drink in public but you can’t be drunk :)

  • John

    haha, well that’s better than nothing

  • John

    Well, they do sell beer in vending machines, so it’s not exactly being discouraged over there. I think people should be able to drink in public as long as they aren’t being a nuisance.

  • http://www.facebook.com/AveryGoodgame Nick Hattan

    It’s all good. Just making sure I wasn’t completely lost.

  • FoxiBiri

    Haha what? What are all these stories of people freaking out if you hold the door open for them? Until now I didn’t even know you shouldn’t… like I know chivalry never happened in Japan, and it’s not “normal” but every time I opened a door for someone or held it open for them to pass through, I either got a normal human response or even more often a heartwarming smile and tiny little bow.
    I’m a big believer in door opening and I open everyones doors with smiles!! Maybe you other gaijin are just doing it wrong xD

  • Ishimaru

    A lot of places have signs saying you can;t smoke on the streets. Here in the UK, it’s the opposite, smoke outside; not in!

  • John

    It’s not so much something you shouldn’t do, it’s just one of those things that is much less common just because in Japan, holding doors open for ladies was never associated with chivalry. It’s not discouraged, just uncommon when compared to the US. And like that one person said, sometimes people get confused and race you to the door xD

  • spiel

    But neither is it encouraged.

    And at least over here in Germany, where drinking in public is allowed, I find it to be a big nuisance. For example there’s a lot of people who drink a beer after work, on crowded trains… Yeah, super yummy smell (please note the sarcasm). Not to mention all the broken bottles and vomit left behind. Indoors as wells out outdoors. Then there’s also the people that get either really loud or really aggressive the more alcohol they consume… or overly friendly *shudders*

    Sure, it’s mostly because there’s so many rude idiots around, but if it was banned those things wouldn’t be a problem anymore.

    (Sorry if your comment voting got messed up. Accidentally pressed down-vote instead of reply and when I tried to rectify it with an up-vote it somehow ended up as -1 up and 1 down…)

  • Trela

    Had just arrived in Tokyo and was waiting for a train during morning rush hour with my luggage and briefcase in hand (first time taking a train in Japan). Was thrilled when one of the train doors opened right in front of me. I was body surfed into the train with hundreds of other commuters, packed like a can of sardines. Five stops later I found my luggage intact at the other end of the car. Welcome to Japan!! Had a similar experience in Singapore taking a hotel elevator. Excellent post. It brought back memories.

  • asdfggwert

    lol, I noticed that too. They’ll never live that one down -.-;

  • ryuma

    4番目の画像は日本ではありませんよ

    南朝鮮の地下鉄ですよ

  • Taro

    Surprised, prettry well observed and described on the Japanese behaviors.
    There may be witnessed drunken Japanese (on the way home from “izakaya” tavern) in the train at night.
    But the act of drinking itself “in the coummuter train” is very unusual and considered uncultivated behavior even after the sunset.
    Although, it’s possible in the other trains such as in Shinkansen – bullet train, express or local trains for private or business trip. In there, some people enjoy drinking in day or night.
    For person thinking about trip in Japan, try it with “ekiben” boxed meal in the train and enjoy the archipelago freely.

  • Murthy

    Hello
    !
    Your
    information has been introduced in

    http://news.searchina.ne.jp/disp.cgi?y=2012&d=0914&f=national_0914_011.shtml,

    which
    presents wonderful topics related to Japan.

    Anyway,
    as Ryuma pointed out, the picture No.4 (subway) shows a scene in South Korean.
    Thank
    you !

    Your
    information has been introduced in

    http://news.searchina.ne.jp/disp.cgi?y=2012&d=0914&f=national_0914_011.shtml,

    which
    presents wonderful topics related to Japan.

    Anyway,
    as Ryuma pointed out, the picture No.4 (subway) shows a scene in South Korean.

    Thank
    you !

  • Mat

    I dont understand why in the US its rude to call for attention (you dont need to “yell”). So what if the waitress totally forgot you and you want some water ? you just wait ?? anyway if Im not wrong “sumimasen” means “excuse me” no?

  • David Gasper

    Agreed. I live in the US too. America should be ashamed of itself XD

  • “That Guy”

    The train in that picture was a train in seoul, south korea lol.

  • Heiangirl

    I found people in a movie theater in Kyoto took off their shoes while watching the movie and either had their feet resting on top of them or the shoes were strewn every which way. You had to be careful if you needed a break and had to make your way in the dark through the obstacle course. Some people also did this on longer train rides and even sometimes on not so crowded subways. I found shoes on men pretty sloppy looking as they were so used to throwing them off and wiggling back into them without tying or untying the shoe.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004265460641 Simcitysocial Mania

    1, 2, 3, 4, & 7 are the same in Pakistan

  • http://mistersanity.blogspot.com Jonadab

    > Tipping is a huge part in the day to day lives
    > of the average American. You tip your waiters,
    > cabdrivers, bellboys, and bartenders…

    You, sir, watch too many movies.
    Cab drivers are part of everyday American life only in the very largest cities (New York, Los Angeles, and maybe a couple of others). In the rest of America, everybody over the age of 16 is expected to own at least one car. Bellboys, to the best of my knowledge, exist only in fiction (and mostly in _bad_ fiction, at that). I’ve never seen one in real life; in fact, I’ve never even heard a supposedly-true story about somebody’s friend-of-a-friend who had dealings with a bellboy in real life. People have told me they’ve met the President. People have told me they’ve seen ghosts. I know someone who once met Robert Wadlow (the tallest person in modern medical history). Nobody has ever told me they’ve ever seen a bellboy. Bartenders exist, of course, but most Americans never encounter them either, at least in the Midwest, on account of the fact that only the least-respectable 2% or so of society is willing to be seen going into a bar. (Even most people who drink regularly and to excess generally avoid going to bars, due to the stigma. They get their beer at the supermarket or drive-through and drink it at home, in private, because they’re embarrassed. Many Americans keep beer in the garage, rather than in the house proper, to avoid any possibility of guests seeing it in the fridge.)
    We do tip waitresses in America. That one’s true.

  • Fakhruddin Ahmad Darwis

    I’m from Indonesia. Most of these things are also common in my country, except the tip and beer things.

  • J-san

    This post is full of beans, and very funny! I just had a bellman (boy) yesterday! (didn’t HAVE him, just had one help me). And Bartenders are everywhere! I don’t know what midwest town the poster comes from but in California we enjoy going to bars AND having beer in the garage. Both work!

  • SY G

    Perhaps your experience is just a Midwest thing?
    I’ve lived in Washington and Florida, and travelled by car through all the west coast states and the southern border states, and that’s simply not the whole story.
    I HAVE seen bellboys (it’s just rare, because they’re basically only in the fancier hotels and resorts. One resort I went to scheduled the bellboy service, because they switched our rooms without our consent, and they had at least 3 or 4 guys doing that job), and I haven’t seen the stigma toward bars except in certain areas. Even if it’s not a bar, many, MANY other kinds of sit-down restaurants feature a bar area (steakhouses, Applebee’s, I could name more).

    So I’m guessing it’s a Midwest culture thing. :/

  • Troof

    Open container laws in the US were created as a way to arrest homeless people and protesters who would otherwise be on public land breaking no laws.

  • supriya

    Some customs are similar to Indian customs – like shouting out to waiters, holding bowls up and overcrowded trains!!

  • Anna Li

    Yay!!! Slurping and lifting! I think it’s hard to NOT slurp and/or lift that bowl up to your face. Plus, no mess! Who knew?

  • http://www.facebook.com/ken.seeroi Ken Seeroi

    And that’s why we live in Japan.

    Especially the one about calling the server to your table. The opposite (American) method is just asinine, where the server has to come by every five or ten minutes to interrupt you and check if you need anything.

    But that’s what they do there.

  • Aerii

    Somehow, I didn’t expect an ad on Nico Nico Douga to lead me to… a Tofugu article…

    http://www.moe2p.com/articles/5036.html

    which apparently links to a translation/summary thing of the article here (IDK, I don’t read Japanese):

    http://www.madameriri.com/2012/12/26/%E3%82%A2%E3%83%A1%E3%83%AA%E3%82%AB%E4%BA%BA%E3%81%8C%E6%97%A5%E6%9C%AC%E3%81%AB%E8%A1%8C%E3%81%A3%E3%81%9F%E3%82%89%E3%81%A8%E3%82%8A%E3%81%82%E3%81%88%E3%81%9A%E3%81%AF%E7%B5%8C%E9%A8%93%E3%81%97/

  • xasca

    the subway is korea not japan

  • 1734856493827563498756

    slurp?

  • Moof

    pretty funny that you talk about crowded trains and can only compliment the scene with a picture of a Korean train.

  • josh

    In England everyone drinks in public :P
    I’ve seen people drinking beer on things like buses, with picknicks, but mainly just out walking on the street

  • CatTasticLuv

    This was interesting to read. I have always been curious about the differences between Japan and America.

    I was astonished at the slurping and lifting a bowl to your face (something like that.) Don’t get me wrong, I am not disgusted or anything like that, I just found it surprising. In America, you are always told not to slurp and to keep your plates and etc. on the table most of your life. I find it interesting the difference on how Japan sees it. And now that I think about it, keeping stuff firmly on the table, especially soup, is a little weird. It would be a lot easier to lift it to your face.

    If I ever went to Japan, I would probably be that one American who holds the door. xD I’ll have to keep this in mind: Do not hold the door.

    Again, interesting read. I actually like most of Japan’s customs.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Frank-Burns/100002386549486 Frank Burns

    In many places in America, the “Land of the Free” one can’t open a beer anywhere except in their house. Go figure.

  • AnonymousArizonan

    Just a midwest thing? Cabs are ridiculously rare in the actual west, too. (Arizona, California, Nevada, Washington, Oregon, you get the idea.) And, there’s no bellboys. Many in younger generations in western U.S.A. do frequent bars and clubs, however, so bartenders are normal to see/meet. However… As far as I know no one in western U.S.A. requires tips to live off, they simply rudely expect and demand it, thinking they have a birthright to extra pay they never deserved in their life. (I’ve never in my life heard of bartenders being tipped, just of people paying for their drinks as required. They’re usually not tipped in movies or TV shows either, so I think it’s entirely made up that bartenders are normal to tip.)
    Tip culture is one of the stupidest things in the entirety of the Unite States, and needs to be outlawed. What do we have minimum wage laws for? It is illegal to pay below minimum wage without a special reason to do so. Stop treating waiters/waitresses like they live out of dumpsters. They are living better than folks on food stamps. It is BS to claim they don’t make minimum wage while working full-time jobs, as that is illegal. And, yes, I do suspect that they lie out their rear-ends when they complain about pay, since they usually don’t do that, and since they tend to be doing well enough financially. If any are really getting paid below minimum wage while meeting the laws to get it, they should either take the boss to court, or find better employment, instead of volunteering to be victims.
    Many places in the United States also have strict rules against tipping, or include “tips” in the bill. This tipping culture nonsense seems to mostly be an east coast thing… And, boy, do morons get in a huff in defense of it, thinking their tips are all that keeps server job persons alive (it’s not, you’re being scammed).
    As for tipping delivery persons… We do do that in the west. But, I don’t understand why, as delivery persons are paid very well. (I knew an individual who had done that line of work, specifically of pizzas, at numerous points in his life. He stated it’s a high paying kind of everyday job most don’t want to do… Like working technical support. And, it came off as also an easy job to get. You are required to have and use your own vehicle, however.)
    Frankly, I think it’s mostly rich people, people in service jobs, and people who have done service jobs in the past who are so frykyn gung ho about tipping.
    Oh, and, no, tipping’s not as common as the gung ho people claim. Most Americans do not regularly do anything that either requires tipping, or has an option to tip. Rich people need to pull their own heads out of their butts, and get in touch with reality. Most Americans rarely ever eat at a real restaurant, have never seen a bellboy in reality (same goes for pool boys, and cabana boys – most hotels and motels don’t have bellboys or cabana boys at all), and don’t use taxis of any kind. Bartenders, as far as I know, are usually regular staff. Most Americans just tip pizza delivery boys, and maybe a waiter/waitress/busboy/bussgirl at somewhere like IHOP or Denny’s. (Usually going to a restaurant is for special occasions. Somebody died, or somebody is having a birthday.) (Disclaimer: Some abnormal people without money sense do regularly frequent real restaurants, causing unto themselves debt, and obesity, just from this one bad habit. They’re more likely to have worked in a restaurant personally in the past, and to have friends who currently do so.)
    The picture of Americans as regulars at nice restaurants, nice hotels, using taxi cabs, etc. is entirely based off: Fiction, New Yorkers, and rich people (such as movie stars, and CEOs). To say that represents normal Americans is to say that the rich orphans in anime represent Japanese people norms. Any “American” saying otherwise is… Certifiably insane, lying about being American, from the east coast (especially New York), or in the below 1% of people in the country who are actually rich. You could officially call them… Unamerican.

  • AnonymousArizonan

    You’re probably rich. Everyday motels and hotels don’t even employ bellboys at all from what I’ve seen. You don’t represent everyday Americans, and need a reality check. I have stayed in plenty of hotels, and motels on family vacations throughout the west coast (very much including California, which is in almost every trip I have been on in my entire life), and they don’t have such people. You carry your own things to and from your room. Bellboys are a thing of highly expensive, rich people hotels.

  • Anonymous

    I honestly thought that my marriage was healthy. i loved my husband with all my heart. we was married 8 years and have a 3 yr old son. we bought a house 2 months ago. i told him i was pregnant…then he starting acting strange. he didn’t want me to keep the baby. one day i decided to tell him i could not go through with not having the baby (about 2 months pregnant), then he tells me he doesn’t love me anymore. 2 days later he tells me he cheated on me and wants a divorce. he has since (2 weeks) been really cruel, cussed at me, told me he was going to file kidnapping on me, and has generally acted like i am a doormat. the other woman even contacted me and told me she is going to be my children’s stepmother. i know that the affair was not very long because he met her 3 months ago. i don’t know what has happened to my husband. i cannot eat or sleep and only have a sister with minimal finances. i completely alone and scared. i needed help because i don’t know what to do. he filed for a divorce with a lawyer. so 3 days later a friend told me about a spell caster dr.marnish@yahoo.com, i contacted him and told him my problem and what i wanted and after 3 days he brought my husband back and made my husband a changed man, he is now a good man.
    Shannon Monique from Texas

  • Spam hater

    go f@#k yourself.

  • be polite

    you got into all these troubles to post spam? have a life, pal.

  • El Barto

    The crowded train in Japan is NOTHING compared to Jakarta.

  • MrAmanojaku

    In Califorina, they are not paid less than miniumu wage.

  • MrsSpooky

    I’ve only lived in New York State and Florida. Not sure about Florida, but in NYS (and this WAS a while ago), they were paid much less than minimum wage. I probably do need to catch up,but that’s my experience.

  • Fakhruddin Ahmad Darwis

    Ha..ha.. couldn’t agree more.

  • Brock

    Aussies in general are renowned to be cheap, at least the people I encounter while they travel overseas, constantly looking for the cheapest place and a freebie anytime they can find it. If sharing the cost of anything, they will pay their fair share, but never a penny more. Aussies basically feel superior to NewZelanders (Kiwis) but inferior to Americans and are always trying to take a jab any chance they can against the “Yanks”

  • justsaying

    Funny article but you have a picture of the Seoul Metro for trains.

  • Mrca

    “And I still can’t fathom why you don’t write your tax included in the whole price, like sensible people (Australia).”

    Capitalism mofo’, people think something costs less than it is, owner gets more money. There is no way you couldn’t “fathom” that without me explaining it to you, but it’s always fashionable to take a desperate shot at the United States, no matter how stupid the reason.

  • McMillin

    Also, in Japan (I’ve done this many times, even in Tokyo) it is completely legit to set down you bag to save your spot (like at a coffee shop), even if no one else is there. I’ve seen people set down cell phones and ipods as place holders too.

    I really am going to miss having to tip for service, though where I’m from in the states a dinner or lunch out is still cheaper after tax and tip than a meal in Tokyo.

    I know the majority of the girls in my study abroad program were often distressed by the squat toilets (less common but they seem really common in train stations). I’m more outdoorsy so I didn’t really care, I think in general no matter where you come from/where your going you have to set aside the little things, because I found that it was the little things that drove me nuts (water saving mechanisms – the water turns off every 30 seconds- on the showers in my dorm brought me to tears many a time). The big things like language difference were more navigable because they are more obvious to all parties involved.

  • Fang the Hedgebat

    BS

  • Yumitolesson

    I didn’t realize that any of these were taboos in other countries..I grew up slurping noodle just like dad, forced myself into the jammed packed train…I don’t know if I can do that anymore. lol