Because of its physical isolation and the fact that it was never successfully invaded before World War II, Japan is one of the most homogeneous nations in the world. Almost 99% of Japan's population is Japanese, with hardly any influx of other genes into the country since the 8th century. The Japanese feel they belong to one huge tribe different from any other people on earth. A Japanese person will often preface a statement or opinion with the words "We Japanese," implying that all Japanese think alike and that all people in the world can be divided into two groups, Japanese and non-Japanese.
While in the West, the recipe for a full and rewarding life seems to be that elusive attainment of "happiness," in Japan, it's the satisfactory performance of duty and obligation. Individuality in Japan is equated with selfishness and a complete disregard for the feelings and consideration of others. The Japanese are instilled with a sense of duty toward the group -- whether it be family, friends, co-workers, or Japanese society as a whole. In a nation as crowded as Japan, such consideration of others is essential, especially in Tokyo, where space is particularly scarce.
Minding Your P's and Q's
When European merchants and missionaries began arriving in Japan almost 400 years ago, the Japanese took one look at them and immediately labeled them barbarians. After all, these hairy and boisterous outsiders rarely bathed and didn't know the first thing about proper etiquette and behavior.
The Japanese, on the other hand, had a strict social hierarchy that dictated exactly how a person should speak, sit, bow, eat, walk, dress, and live. Failure to comply with the rules could bring swift punishment and sometimes even death. More than one Japanese literally lost his head for committing a social blunder.
Of course, things have changed since then, and the Japanese have even adopted some of the Western barbarians' customs. However, what hasn't changed is that the Japanese still attach much importance to proper behavior and etiquette, which developed to allow relationships to be as frictionless as possible -- important in a country as crowded as Japan. The Japanese don't like confrontations, and although I'm told they do occur, I've never seen a fight in Japan.
One aspect of Japanese behavior that sometimes causes difficulty for foreigners is that the Japanese find it very hard to say no. They're much more apt to say that your request is very difficult to fulfill, or else they'll 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 in Japan. Apologizing sometimes does. And if someone does give in to your request, you can't thank the person enough.
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 and to whom you are bowing. In addition to bowing in greeting, the 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, but as a foreigner you'll probably feel foolish and look pretty stupid if you try to imitate what the Japanese have spent years learning. A simple bob of the head is enough. Knowing that foreigners shake hands, a Japanese person may extend a hand but probably won't be able to stop from giving a little bow as well. I've even seen Japanese bow when speaking to an invisible someone on the telephone.
Visiting Cards -- You're a nonentity in Japan if you don't have a business or visiting card, called a meishi. Everyone from housewives to plumbers to secretaries to bank presidents carries meishi to give out upon introduction. If you're trying to conduct business in Japan, you'll be regarded suspiciously if you don't have business cards. As a tourist, you don't have to have business cards, but it certainly doesn't hurt, and the Japanese will be greatly impressed by your preparedness. The card should have your address and occupation on it. As a nice souvenir, you might consider having your meishi made in Japan with the Japanese syllabic script (katakana) written on the reverse side.
The proper way to present a meishi depends on the status of the two people involved. 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. 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. 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!").
Shoes -- Nothing is so distasteful to the Japanese as the bottoms of shoes, and therefore shoes are taken off 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 floors you should remove even these slippers -- only bare feet or socks are allowed to tread upon tatami.
Restrooms present another whole set of slippers. If you're in a home or Japanese inn, you'll notice a second pair of slippers -- again plastic or rubber -- sitting just inside the restroom door. Step out of the hallway plastic shoes and into the toilet-room slippers and wear these the whole 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 the Japanese.
Guest Etiquette -- If you are invited to a Japanese home, you should know it is 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 are lucky enough to get an invitation, don't show up empty-handed. Bring a small gift, such as candy, fruit, flowers, or a souvenir of your hometown. Alcohol is also appreciated.
Instead of being invited to a private home, you may be invited out for dinner and drinks, especially if you're in Japan on business, in which case your hosts may have an expense account. In any event, it's nice to reciprocate by taking them out later to your own territory, say, to a French or other Western-style restaurant, where you'll feel comfortable playing host.
If you're with friends, the general practice is to divide the check equally among everyone, no matter how much or how little each person consumed.
In any case, no matter what favor a Japanese has done for you -- whether it was giving you a small gift, buying you a drink, or making a telephone call for you -- be sure to give your thanks profusely the next time you meet. The Japanese think it odd and rude not to be remembered and thanked upon your next meeting, even if a year has elapsed.
Other Customs -- Don't blow your nose in public if you can help it, and never at the dinner table. It's considered disgusting. On the other hand, even though the Japanese are very hygienic, they are not averse to spitting on the sidewalk. And even more peculiar, men often urinate when and where they want, usually against a tree or a wall and most often after a night of carousing in the bars.
The Japanese Bath
On my very first trip to Japan, I was certain that I would never get into a public Japanese bath (sento). 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 -- and I, for one, am addicted to them. You'll find them at Japanese-style inns, at hot-spring spas, and at neighborhood baths (not everyone has his or her own bath in Japan). Sometimes they're elaborate affairs with many tubs both indoor and outdoor, and sometimes they're nothing more than a tiny tub. Public baths have long been regarded as social centers for the Japanese -- friends and co-workers visit hot-spring resorts together; neighbors exchange gossip at the neighborhood bath. Sadly, however, the neighborhood bath has been in great decline over the past decades, as more and more Japanese acquire private baths. In 1968, Tokyo alone had 2,687 neighborhood baths; today that number has dropped to about 1,000. On a positive note, several hot-spring spas (onsen) have opened in Tokyo and its vicinity in recent years, complete with open-air baths (rotenburo).
In any case, whether large or small, the procedure at all Japanese baths is the same. After you remove your shoes at the entryway, completely disrobe in the changing room, and put your clothes in either a locker or a basket, you hold a washcloth -- provided free or available for sale -- in front of your vital parts and walk into the bath area. There you'll find plastic basins and stools (sometimes they're still made of wood), and faucets along the wall. Sit on a stool in front of a faucet and repeatedly fill your basin with water or use the adjacent showerhead, rinsing your whole body. If there's no hot water from the faucet, it's acceptable to dip your basin into the hot bath. Most Japanese will soap down before entering the bath (though increasingly many simply rinse off), but all traces of soap should be rinsed off before entering the bath. Like in a Jacuzzi, everyone uses the same bathwater. 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 your bath 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 you toasty warm for hours afterward. With time, you'll probably become addicted, too. Note: Because tattoos in Japan have long been associated with yakuza (Japanese mafia), many sento and onsen do not admit people with tattoos. If your tattoo is discreet, however, 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.