As an island nation with few natural resources, Japan's 127 million people are its greatest asset. Hardworking, honest, and proud about performing every task well no matter how insignificant it may seem, Japanese are well known for their politeness and helpfulness to strangers. Indeed, hardly anyone returns from a trip to Japan without stories of extraordinary kindnesses extended by Japanese.
With almost 99% of its population consisting of ethnic Japanese, Japan is one of the most homogeneous nations in the world. That -- coupled with Japan's actual physical isolation as an island nation -- has more than anything else led to a feeling among Japanese that they belong to a single huge tribe different from any other people on earth, and that all people can basically be divided into two categories: Japanese and non-Japanese. You'll often hear a Japanese preface a statement or opinion with the words "We Japanese," implying that all Japanese think alike.
While in the West the attainment of "happiness" is the elusive goal for a full and rewarding life, in Japan, it's satisfactory performance of duty. From the time they are born, Japanese are instilled with a sense of duty that extends toward parents, spouses, bosses, co-workers, neighbors, and society as a whole. In a nation as crowded as Japan, consideration of others is essential, and consideration of the group always wins out over the desire of the individual. In fact, I have had Japanese tell me they consider individuality synonymous with selfishness and a complete disregard for the feelings of others.
Meeting the Japanese People
On a personal level, Japanese are among the most likable people in the world. They are kind, thoughtful, and adept in perceiving another person's needs. Japanese have an unerring eye for pure beauty, whether it be food, architecture, or landscaped gardens; it's impossible to visit Japan and not have some of the Japanese appreciation of beauty rub off.
If you're invited to Japan by an organization or business, you'll receive the royal treatment and will most likely be wined and dined so wonderfully and thoroughly that you'll never want to leave. If you go to Japan on your own as an ordinary tourist, however, chances are that your experiences will be much different. Except for those who have lived or traveled abroad, few Japanese have had much contact with foreigners. In fact, even in Tokyo, there are some Japanese who have never spoken to a foreigner and would be quite embarrassed and uncomfortable if confronted with the possibility. And even though most of them have studied English, few Japanese have had the opportunity to use the language and cannot (or are too shy to) communicate in it. So don't be surprised if you find the empty seat beside you on the subway the last one to be occupied -- most Japanese are deathly afraid you'll ask them a question they won't understand.
In many respects, therefore, it's much harder to meet the locals in Japan than in many other countries. Japanese are simply much shyer than Americans. Although they will sometimes approach you to ask whether they might practice English with you, for the most part you're left pretty much on your own unless you make the first move.
Probably the easiest way to meet Japanese is to go where they play -- namely, the country's countless bars, including those that serve yakitori (skewered chicken). Usually small affairs, each with perhaps just a counter and some tables, they're often filled with both younger and older Japanese, many of whom are regulars. As the evening wears on, you'll encounter Japanese who do want to speak to you if they understand English, and other slightly inebriated Japanese who will speak to you even if they don't. If you're open to them, such chance encounters may prove to be the highlight of your trip or, at the very least, an evening of just plain fun.
My co-worker Janie, who traveled around Japan with her then-3-year-old daughter, found that traveling with children opened up opportunities like a magic key. Other children talked freely to her child (they never seemed to have a language barrier), while Janie was able to talk to parents about their children. Complete strangers she met on a train even invited her and her daughter home; in contrast, some Japanese people she has known for years have never invited her home, preferring instead to meet at coffee shops or restaurants.
Another good way to meet Japanese people is to stay in a minshuku, an inexpensive lodging in a private home. Also, national newspapers and local English-language newsletters list international club activities; you may be able to hook up with, say, a hiking or skiing group composed of both Japanese and international members.
Finally, you can meet locals and learn about destinations at the same time through Goodwill Guides, a national organization of volunteers (mostly retirees, housewives, and students) who donate their time to guide you around their city free of charge (you pay their travel expenses, admission fees to sights, and meals). There are Goodwill Guides in cities throughout Japan, including Fukuoka, Kumamoto, Beppu, Kagoshima, Takamatsu, Matsuyama, Hiroshima, Himeji, Kurashiki, Matsue, Kobe, Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Kanazawa, Matsumoto, Nagoya, Tokyo, Yokohama, Kamakura, Hakone, Nikko, and Matsushima. Reservations for a guide must be made in advance -- usually a week or more. For information, including contact information, ask for the pamphlet "Goodwill Guide Groups of Japan Welcome You," at Tourist Information Centers in Tokyo or Narita and Kansai international airports; or go to JNTO's website at www.jnto.go.jp, and click "Essential Info" (under "Arrange Your Travel"), and then "Guide Services."
The Home-Visit System -- Recognizing the difficulty foreigners may face in meeting Japanese people, a half-dozen or so cities offer a Home Visit, allowing overseas visitors the chance to visit an English-speaking Japanese family in their home for a few hours. Not only does such an encounter bring you in direct contact with Japanese, it also offers a glimpse into their lifestyle. You can even request that a family member share your occupation, though such requests are, of course, sometimes impossible to fulfill. The program doesn't cost anything, but it does take some preparation. You must make arrangements in advance, which differs from city to city and can range from 1 day in advance to 2 weeks in advance, by calling or applying in person at the local administrative authority or private organization (which is sometimes the local tourist office) that handles the city's home-visit program. After contacting a local family, the office will inform you of the family and the time to visit. Most visits take place for a few hours in the evening (dinner is not served). You should bring a small gift such as flowers, fruit, or a small souvenir from your hometown. Before your visit, you may be asked to appear in person at the application office to obtain detailed directions; or the office may call with the directions. Note that application offices may be closed on weekends and holidays. Here are a few contact numbers for cities participating in the Home-Visit System: Narita (tel. 0476/24-3232 or 24-3198; you can also apply in person at the Tourist Information Center in Terminal 2 at Narita airport), Nagoya (tel. 052/581-5689), Kyoto (tel. 075/752-3511), Osaka (tel. 06/6345-2189), Kobe (tel. 078/303-1010), Kurashiki (tel. 086/475-0543), Hiroshima (tel. 082/247-9715), Fukuoka (tel. 092/733-2220), and Kumamoto (tel. 096/359-2121). For information, contact local tourist information offices.
Much of Japan's system of etiquette and manners stems from its feudal days, when the social hierarchy dictated how a person spoke, sat, bowed, ate, walked, and lived. Failure to comply with the rules would bring severe punishment, even death. Many Japanese have literally lost their heads for committing social blunders.
Of course, nowadays it's quite different, although Japanese still attach much importance to proper behavior. As a foreigner, however, you can get away with a lot. After all, you're just a "barbarian" and, as such, can be forgiven for not knowing the rules. There are two cardinal sins, however, you should never commit: One is you should never wear your shoes into a Japanese home, traditional inn, temple, or any room with tatami; the other is that you should never wash with soap inside a communal Japanese bathtub. Except for these two horrors, you will probably be forgiven any other social blunders (such as standing with your arms folded or your hands in your pockets).
As a sensitive traveler, however, you should try to familiarize yourself with the basics of Japanese social etiquette. Japanese are very appreciative of foreigners who take the time to learn about their country and are quite patient in helping you. Remember, if you do commit a faux pas, apologize profusely and smile.
Most forms of behavior and etiquette in Japan developed to allow relationships to be as frictionless as possible -- a pretty good idea in a country as crowded as Japan. Japanese don't like confrontations, and fights are extremely rare. Japanese are very good at covering almost all unpleasantness with a smile. Foreigners find the smile hard to read; a smiling Japanese face can mean happiness, sadness, embarrassment, or even anger. My first lesson in such physiognomic inscrutability happened on a subway in Tokyo, where I saw a middle-aged Japanese woman who was about to board the subway brutally knocked out of the way by a Japanese man rushing off the train. She almost lost her balance, but she gave a little laugh, smiled, and got on the train. A few minutes later, as the train was speeding through a tunnel, I stole a look at her and was able to read her true feelings on her face. Lost in her thoughts, she knitted her brow in consternation and looked most upset and unhappy. The smile had been a put-on.
Another aspect of Japanese behavior that sometimes causes difficulty for foreigners, especially in business negotiations, is the reluctance of Japanese to say no when they mean no. Many consider such directness poor manners. As a result, they're much more apt to say your request is very difficult, or they'll simply beat around the bush without giving a definite answer. At this point, you're expected to let the subject drop. Showing impatience, anger, or aggressiveness rarely gets you anywhere; apologizing sometimes does. And if someone does give in to your request, you can't thank him enough.
If you're invited to a Japanese home, you should know that it's both a rarity and an honor. Most Japanese consider their homes too small and humble for entertaining guests, which is why there are so many restaurants, coffee shops, and bars. If you're invited to a home, don't show up empty-handed. Bring a small gift such as candy, fruit, flowers, or perhaps a souvenir from your hometown. Alcohol is also appreciated. And if someone does extend you a favor, be sure to thank him again the next time you see him -- even if it's a year later.
Don't blow your nose in public if you can help it, and never at the dinner table. It's considered most disgusting. On the other hand, even though Japanese are very hygienic, they're not at all averse to spitting on the sidewalk. And, even more peculiar, the men urinate when and where they want, usually against a tree or a wall and most often after a night of carousing in the bars.
This being a man's society, men will walk in and out of doors and elevators before women, and in subways, they will sit down while women stand. Some Japanese men who have had contact with the Western world (particularly hotel staff) will make a gallant show of allowing a Western woman to step out of the elevator first. For the sake of women living in Japan, thank them warmly.
Bowing -- The main form of greeting in Japan is the bow rather than the handshake. Although at first glance it may seem simple enough, the bow -- together with its implications -- is actually quite complicated. The depth of the bow and the number of seconds devoted to performing it, as well as the total number of bows, depend on who you are, to whom you're bowing, and how he's bowing back. In addition to bowing in greeting, Japanese also bow upon departing and to express gratitude. The proper form for a bow is to bend from the waist with a straight back and to keep your arms at your sides if you're a man or clasped in front of you if you're a woman, but if you're a foreigner, a simple nod of the head is enough. Knowing foreigners shake hands, a Japanese may extend his hand, although he probably won't be able to stop himself from giving a little bow as well. (I've even seen Japanese bow when talking on the telephone.) Although I've occasionally witnessed Japanese businessmen shaking hands among themselves, the practice is still quite rare. Kimono-clad hostesses of a high-end traditional Japanese inn will often kneel on tatami and bow to the ground as they send you off on your journey.
Visiting Card -- You're a nonentity in Japan if you don't have a visiting card, called a meishi. Everyone -- from housewives to bank presidents -- carries meishi to give out during introductions. If you're trying to conduct business in Japan, you'll be regarded suspiciously -- even as a phony -- if you don't have business cards. Meishi are very useful business tools for Japanese. Likewise, a meishi can be used as an introduction to a third party -- a Japanese may give you his meishi, scribble something on it, and tell you to present it to his cousin who owns a restaurant in Fukuoka. Voilà -- the cousin will treat you like a royal guest.
As a tourist, you don't have to have business cards, but it certainly doesn't hurt, and Japanese people will be greatly impressed by your preparedness. The card should have your address and occupation on it; you might even consider having your meishi made in Japan, with katakana (Japanese syllabic script) written on the reverse side.
Needless to say, there's a proper way to present a meishi. Turn it so that the other person can read it (that is, upside-down to you) and present it with both hands and a slight bow. If you are of equal status, you exchange meishi simultaneously; otherwise, the lower person on the totem pole presents the meishi first and delivers it underneath the card being received, to show deference. Afterward, don't simply put the meishi away. Rather, it's customary for both of you to study the meishi for a moment and, if possible, to comment on it (such as, "You're from Kyoto? My brother lived in Kyoto!" or "Sony! What a famous company!"). If you're at a business meeting, you should place the card in front of you on the table.
Shoes -- Nothing is so distasteful to Japanese as the soles of shoes. Therefore, you should take off your shoes before entering a home, a Japanese-style inn, a temple, and even some museums and restaurants. Usually, there will be plastic slippers at the entryway for you to slip on, but whenever you encounter tatami, you should take off even these slippers -- only bare feet or socks are allowed to tread upon tatami.
Restrooms present another set of slippers. If you're in a home or a Japanese inn, you'll notice another pair of slippers -- again plastic or rubber -- sitting right inside the restroom door. Step out of the hallway plastic shoes and into the bathroom slippers, and wear these the entire time you're in the restroom. When you're finished, change back into the hallway slippers. If you forget this last changeover, you'll regret it -- nothing is as embarrassing as walking into a room wearing toilet slippers and not realizing what you've done until you see the mixed looks of horror and mirth on the faces of Japanese people.
Bathing -- On my very first trip to Japan, I was certain I would never enter a Japanese bath. I was under the misconception that men and women bathed together, and I couldn't imagine getting into a tub with a group of smiling and bowing Japanese men. I needn't have worried -- in almost all circumstances, bathing is gender segregated. There are some exceptions, primarily at outdoor hot-spring spas in the countryside, but the women who go to these are usually grandmothers who couldn't care less. Young Japanese women wouldn't dream of jumping into a tub with a group of male strangers.
Japanese baths are delightful -- I'm addicted to them. You'll find them at Japanese-style inns, at onsen (hot-spring spas), and at sento (neighborhood baths); not everyone has his or her own bath in Japan. Sometimes they're elaborate affairs with indoor and outdoor tubs, and sometimes they're nothing more than a tiny tub. Public baths have long been regarded as social centers for Japanese -- friends and co-workers will visit hot-spring resorts together; neighbors exchange gossip at the neighborhood bath. Sadly, neighborhood baths have been in great decline over the past decades, as more and more Japanese acquire private baths. Hot-spring spas, however, remain hugely popular.
In any case, whether large or small, the procedure at all Japanese baths is the same. After completely disrobing in the changing room and putting your clothes in either a locker or a basket, hold a washcloth (provided free or available for sale at the bathhouse) in front of you so that it covers your vital parts and walk into the bathing area. There you'll find plastic basins and stools (sometimes they're still made of wood), and faucets along the wall. Sit on the stool in front of a faucet and repeatedly fill your basin with water (or use the hand-held faucet if available), splashing water all over you. If there's no hot water from the faucet, it's acceptable to dip your basin into the hot bath, but your washcloth should never touch the tub water. Rinsing yourself thoroughly is not only proper onsen manners; it also acclimatizes your body to the bath's hot temperature so you don't suffer a heart attack. While some Japanese just throw a bit of water over themselves, others soap down completely -- and I mean completely -- and then rinse away all traces of soap before getting into the tub. At any rate, only when you feel squeaky-clean should you enter the tub.
As in a Jacuzzi, everyone uses the same bath water. For that reason, you should never wash yourself in the tub, never put your washcloth into the bath (place it on your head or lay it beside the bath), and never pull the plug when you're done. After you bathe is when you scrub your body and wash your hair. I have never seen a group of people wash themselves so thoroughly as the Japanese, from their ears to their toes. All sento provide shampoo and body soap, along with interesting products provided free by companies hoping to rope in new customers, but in small public baths you might have to provide your own.
Your first attempt at a Japanese bath may be painful -- simply too scalding for comfort. It helps if you ease in gently and then sit perfectly still. You'll notice all tension and muscle stiffness ebbing away, a decidedly relaxing way to end the day. The Japanese are so fond of baths that many take them nightly, especially in winter when a hot bath keeps them toasty warm for hours. At an onsen, where hot-spring waters are considered curative, Japanese will bathe both at night and again in the morning, often making several trips between the faucet and the tubs and being careful not to rinse off the curative waters when they're done. With time, you'll probably become addicted, too. Note: Because tattoos in Japan have long been associated with yakuza (Japanese mafia), many public baths do not admit people with tattoos. However, if your tattoo is discreet and you're at, say, a small Japanese inn, you probably won't have any problems.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.