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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

10 Strange Customs Of Japan

The first thing I want you to understand is that I don't really find any of the following 'strange' customs of Japan to be strange. It's just a part of the way Japan is.

Every culture is different. If we were all the same chances are we'd be a pretty boring race ready to advance to the next level of social evolution. I know I contradicted myself. It's just an opinion.

Anyhow, in no particular order are some strange Japanese customs I saw mentioned on a few other sites. I will mention what they are, and if possible explain why they aren't really that strange... when you stop and think about it. I will admit that while in Japan I might have found these things odd, but I accept odd for what it is.  

  •  No Tipping: TIPS is an acronym, meaning: To Insure Prompt Service. When you go to a restaurant and are served a great meal... or ride a taxi... unlike other parts of the world where you are expected to give a tip to your server or driver, in Japan you do not tip. In fact, I recall leaving a tip in a restaurant a month or so in to my stay in Japan and actually had the staff come running out after me because I had obviously made a mistake and forgotten some money behind on the table. That's classy. they didn't have to come running after me. I also had a taxi driver refuse to accept a ¥10,000 (cdn $125) bill when the actual trip was ¥Y1000 (Cdn $12.50). My mistake in not knowing what the money looked like. When I said it was okay, he could keep it, he looked at me like I was from Mars - which I suppose I was having only been in Japan for two days at the time. Basically, that was me giving the taxi driver an extra $112.50 for a Cdn $12.50 trip. Here in Canada, that money would be gladly pocketed and me, the gullible visitor none the wiser. And really... to quote Mr. Pink from Reservoir Dogs... why do you tip at a restaurant, but not a fast-food place. Just because someone gets you a menu and a glass of water does not mean they should get 15% of the bill... Someone prepared my meal at the fast food place, gave it to me and I took it to my table... I may or may not have taken it to the trash can when finished, but someone came out and cleaned the tables... no tip. So... which way is correct? In Japan - no tipping. In Japan... they are correct.
  • Wear A Mask When Sick: I thought this odd... when you are really sick and contagious, stay home and get better. There's no need to infect the whole city. But in Japan... people want to work so badly that they wear sterilized masks. This is admirable, because they don't want to pass on germs... but pushing themselves like this when sick may not be the best thing their body needs. Undecided if this is weird or a great way to ensure no one thinks they are lazy punks like us in the west who will gladly fake being sick for days in advance of actually taking a 'sick day' off.
  • Streets Have No Name: There are signs indicating what part of town you are in... but rarely is there a sign telling you a street name. I can't understand this for the life of me. Why not have a bloody street sign up somewhere? Aside from big cities like Tokyo and Osaka, it is very rare to see street signs indicating the street's name. I don't know... maybe it's good that there are no street names... if they did you can bet your bottom yen that every bloody street would have the name sakura (cherry) in it.
  • Restaurant And Store Clerks SHOUT 'Welcome' As You Enter: Weird? Yes. A great thing. Yes-yes. My only beef with this is that they shout it out to you. Geez... if you are that interested in greeting someone, come up to them bow and say welcome. Shouting at people from behind a counter - atop other customers seems rude... but you get used to it quick enough. It's still a lot nicer than NOT being greeted when I walk into a store here in Canada. In fact, half the time I get the feeling people are staring at me as though I'm going to steal something. Okay... less so as I age, but just to keep them on their toes, I do like to steal things. Kidding. I don't like to steal things, but the voices - the VOICES command me to. No... really, I'm kidding. I don't steal things. Anymore.
  • Plastic Toilet Slippers: If you ever need to utilize a washroom in Japan - public or private, you will see - placed at the entrance of the facilities, a set of small plastic toilet slippers that, if you are a typical gaijin (foreigner) like me - these bad boys will never fit your feet. Ever. If they do... you have small feet or are more Japanese than you realize. The whole point of slippers in Japan was that a long time ago every single room in a typical Japanese house utilized grass tatami mats as the floor. You were provided slippers to walk on them. But... when you use a washroom or, as the Japanese called them - the WC (Water Closet) (Thank you, England) they figure you might accidentally splash some toilet water on yourself. It wouldn't do to then walk around the nice clean tatami mats with toilet water on your slippers - so the plastic toilet slipper was introduced. I imagine plastic was used because at one time having anything made of plastic was rare. Now it's just cheap and something you can throw out after the gaijin has used them in your water closet.
  • Washing BEFORE You Take A Public Bath: I found this complaint of Japanese customs to be strange. What's wrong with taking getting clean before you take a bath? It's like cleaning the house before the maid arrives to clean the house... you don't want her to see how much of a pig you really are. in this case, part of the problem is in assuming that Public Baths are for the public to take a bath. They are not. Public Baths are more like a hot spa... a place to relax. To take a load off. It is not a place to soak away the day's grime. Before entering a hot spa public bath, you should indeed have a bath and get all the dirt off you. This isn't strange or weird to me and I only present it because others think it's strange.
  • Bus Drivers Turn The Engine Off At Red Lights: Really? They do this? It must have become a phenomenon after I left the country. Apparently there is a national campaign to stop the idling of cars and other motor vehicles. The idea is to help stop or lessen the impact of car exhaust as smog pollution. This is admirable. I do think that shutting an engine down at every stop light is excessive and throw out the gauntlet that says maybe it is actually worse to shut an engine off at every red light than to leave it idling. What? How? I'm not saying this is true, but I question just how much more energy and smog is created when you are constantly re-starting an engine. Actually... the Japanese have it right... less energy is required and fewer emissions arise from restarting a warm engine versus idling for longer than 10 seconds.
  • Adult Bike Riders Wear Gloves But No Helmet: This has nothing to do with safety versus cleanliness and has more to do with vanity. In Japan, I know for a fact that the lighter skin a woman has, the more beautiful she is considered. As well... having darker, tanned skin is a sign you are a field worker - aka a farmer and thus not of a 'higher social standing'... yeah, yeah... eat your 3 bowls of rice a day and tell me rice farmers have no social standing. This is just plain silly.
  • Slurping Food Is A Good Thing: While many cultures say that slurping is bad manners, in Japan it is an audible sign to the chef or meal preparer that you are enjoying the cooked meal. Men and women slurp. The louder, the better. Is this strange? No. the reasoning is sound. Middle East countries allow for belching out loud to show that the meal was good. It's just the way it is.
  • Flashing a Vee Sign When Posing For Photographs: I have no idea why damn near everyone does this - except those 40 and up. It's a Peace sign... or it's the Victory over Japan sign... I have no idea. And I bet the Japanese don't either. It's just something they do. It makes everyone look cute... but I don't have a problem with this... people show some life when they are flashing the Vee sign and generally when they do this, they also smile. There's nothing wrong with looking happy in a photograph. That photo above - those are two of my favorite students from Nozaki Chu Gakko (Nozaki Junior High School) of Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken, pretending to join a procession of monks in Nikko-shi.
Do you know of some strange Japanese customs you would like to share? Feel free.

Andrew Joseph


  1. Well I don't want to hurt you, but most of the weird customs listed here are totally fake.

    1. Been there - seen it all. so they are not fake.

  2. A lot of these apply in Korea too! :)

    1. I thought so... but I did NOT have very long to look around Seoul when I was there. Maybe next time. Thanks for writing in Mimikim1234.

  3. Awesome tips, Dave. Thanks for sharing with us.