Seven Things I’ll Never Get Used to in Japan


Enjoy Party with People Who Look Nothing Like This!!
Enjoy Party with People Who Look Nothing Like This!!

Food? No problem. Small spaces? Check, I can handle that. But still there are a few matters, after a month in Japan, that continue to surprise me.

1. Public announcements
Non-stop announcements might be expected in the trains and stations. But faceless broadcasts over loudspeaker, in parks, plazas, and buildings, announcing closings, safety rules, and I can only guess what else, are just creepy.

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On buses and trams, there is often a driver announcing the next stop at the same time a recorded message is announcing the next stop. Simultaneously, a scrolling announcement is floating by, and there might be some background music to keep things cheery. Not more than a few seconds can pass in Japan cities without an announcement, a very polite announcement.

2. Carnival music announcing train and tram stops.
It’s so damn happy. My life has, in fact, become a merry-go-round.

school girls japan
I love the sailor suits on school girls.

3. It’s a man’s world, and a uniform world.
The hotels, the morning coffee shops, the trains, the sidewalks, are filled with ‘salary men.’ All in the same white shirts, dark pants. Working women wear uniform dark skirts with a smart little jacket over a white blouse (with a feminine cut) and perhaps a scarf for flair. School kids are in uniforms. My favorite are the sailor outfits for girls. Huge classes of boys and girls in bright yellow hats swarm around the important sites in Nara, and into the souvenir shops later.

Speaking of uniform, when’s the last time you visited a country and saw no minority class? [Thanks to Lu Lippold for adding the comment below on this matter, and sharing this link on racism in Japan.] Japanese people work in Japanese hotels, and Japanese tour groups are just as common in Japan as overseas, led by someone with an umbrella poking up in the air.

4. Shouted greetings upon entering restaurants
Don’t try to blend in when you are entering or leaving a restaurant. Customarily, the staff shouts out their welcome. It drifts from the front of the house to the kitchen and back. Same goes for the thanks and bye-bye.

5. No tipping
OK, maybe I could get used to this. But there have been a couple times when I just wanted to hand over some money for services rendered, especially the time our sweet ryokan proprietor drove us to the train station. We had so few words to communicate with each other.

This is perhaps the only rule widely disregarded.
This is perhaps the only rule widely disregarded.

6. Bikes on sidewalks
I thought if I had an accident here, it would be from getting run over by a bicycle. But it’s not too late; I might still have a pedestrian-bicycle face-off. Aside or a leg off, I say!

7. Smart Toilets
They're busy while you're busy. Heated seats, automatic bidet and butt-washer with adjustable pressure and direction, built-in hand faucets, bells, whistles….  In some public toilets where the fancy models aren't provided, women are treated to flushing sound effect buttons. Maybe that's why there is usually no wait.

This model has only a few buttons, so the process is easy.
This model has only a few buttons, so the process is easy.

I'll probably never get used to the fact that I can’t launch into conversation with someone, because of our language barrier. But happily, Japanese carry on as if I understand. Sometimes I do.

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12 thoughts on “Seven Things I’ll Never Get Used to in Japan”

  1. Kris…they may not *look* like minorities, but they are there–and they’re treated as disparagingly as we treat our very own. I had never heard anyone make outright racist comments until I lived in Japan, and then I heard my middle-class, educated salary-man students casually use the equivalent of the n-word about Koreans and Ainu. I would ask them why they used these insulting terms, and they would say things like, “Because Koreans are dirty and stupid.” I just googled to see if maybe things had changed for the better in the past 40 years, but apparently not:

    Anyway, I love your posts from Japan — 懐かしい!! But please listen to the announcements and be very careful not to fall down and/or lose things!

    • You are so right, particularly in the big cities. This occurred to me as we took a taxi upon arrival in Kyoto. Lots of Chinese taxi drivers; we met many Koreans in Tokyo. For the past three weeks we’ve been in pretty small towns and out-of-the-way places that are pretty homogenous. So to be back in the city is a different picture. I don’t understand Japanese well enough to pick up nuanced (or not so nuanced!) comments, but the racism is still visible by division of labor. Just started reading Half the Sky on the way here, btw. I will sit up and pay attention! Thanks so much for the comment!

  2. Lu, the most overt instance we saw was at a baseball game when a foreign player was poised to break the single season home run record of Japanese idol Sadaharu Oh. After the guy tied the record, the Japanese pitchers refused to throw him a strike in his two at bats after that. Also heard the “word” I think you were referring to from nearby fans. Does it start with a “G?”

    • Ah — the “g” word — gaijin. I’m sure you’ve heard this word as you walk around in the hinterlands of Japan, preceded by the word “hen-na,” as in, “Henna gaijin da ne!” This means, “Whoa, look at the weird foreigners!” I was never clear on how derogatory a term it is. It really just means “people from outside.” But I always like to say it loudly when I see groups of Japanese tourists anywhere in the U.S., just to get even.

      • Lu, The Japan Times yesterday had a page full of letters from non-Japanese Japan residents about the racism they encounter here. Interesting was the discussion of those who have learned Japanese, including Kanji, being even more unwelcome than others who just limp along, or only have “tourist” Japanese like us. I think the general feeling was that those who had really learned to both speak and read Japanese were “presumptuous” and, according to one writer, “If you’ve been here long enough to really learn the language, you’ve worn out your welcome.” Lot of bitterness on that page. One note from me: we were at a baseball game where a gaijin tied the season home run record of Japanese idol Sadaharu Oh. The word was tossed around more than once that night by the fans near us.

  3. Things I couldn’t get used to:

    1) I didn’t get why we weren’t supposed to walk around eating anything outside — not even an ice cream cone in a park.
    2) the over employment. 5 smiling neatly uniformed greeters in hotels. Squads of female cleaners in pink uniforms rushing on to clean trains.
    3) the guy whose job it was in the train station to stand there and repeatedly clean the hand rail on the escalator.
    4) the list of “others”. My husband had a Japanese physician who trained his lab. In the two years he was in the US with his family, his little twins became fluent with accentless English. When they returned for a visit a few years later, the children spoke no English. When we incredulously asked him why they hadn’t done anything so the kids would retain their English fluency, he said they didn’t want them to be ostracized in school. Huh?

    If you don’t mind me sharing, here’s my take on Japanese toilets:

    • Suzanne, thanks for the comment and link. We’re now in a Capsule Hotel, which isn’t even the smallest room we’ve been in! Best toilet ever. Did you take lots of photos of signs when you were here? One of these days I’ll share a bunch on Pinterest.

    • Suzanne, I think that’s the attitude of a lot of Japanese-English (and all other languages) are foreign, and by foreign, I think they mean unwelcome. I don’t know if it’s peculiar to Japan, but for a country that is an international business powerhouse and allegedly welcomes tourists (e.g. the Olympic bid) we find Japan to be singularly inhospitable to non-Japanese speakers. It’s not that anyone is overtly rude (well, some are; we’ve been not admitted on two occasions to restaurants that obviously had empty seats–“So sorry, we’re full.) but there’s just very little concession made. They know that nobody but Japanese can read Japanese, but other than trains, it’s very rare to find any Latin alphabet signs or menus to help you along. Couple that with not allowing foreigners to buy SIM cards for their phones and a few other things and I’d say Japan, as a whole, requires a lot more effort to be a tourist than, say, Europe or Latin America. Or Thailand, or Vietnam.

    • We have one now in our hotel that turns on the light and puts up the lid as you enter the bathroom. If you’re a guy, there’s a button just inside the door which raises the seat, too. This is living.

  4. I’ve always wanted to go to Japan but have never got around to it. I’ve always been fascinated by the culture and the people. Every country has it’s strange aspects that I’m sure you will get use to eventually, it may just take more time.

    • Lawrence, thanks for the comment. I’m not intending to criticize these cultural idiosyncrasies, nor to say that I’m uncomfortable with them. This is what I love about travel, being able to observe the differences. I hope I don’t get used to these ‘strange aspects,’ because then I wouldn’t be relishing in them! I hope you do get to Japan soon, and keep us posted.


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