The first thing you’ll notice about Japanese culture, and the people in Japan, is how overwhelmingly polite they are. This politeness comes from a deep-rooted concept of respect and putting the group first before the individual. This concept transcends everything about daily life in the country. Respect for others is why people form a line when waiting or step outside to talk on the phone. The idea of being bothersome to others is highly offensive to Japanese people. This is the reason why punctuality is so important, acts of kindness go so far and why, as a foreigner, observing and mimicking these positive behaviors will both give you a new perspective on respect, and earn you respect from your hosts.
A few more key aspects of Japanese culture and behavior one should be familiar with before traveling to Japan:
Japan is still a very male-dominated society,
However, this is slowly changing. You could easily compare Japan to the 1960s in this regard.
Yes, (or Hai) doesn’t always mean Yes.
In many places in Asia, people don’t like to say No. Avoiding saying No sometimes, allows the other part to save face, or avoid embarrassment. With that concept in mind, “Yes” does not always mean “Yes” in Japan. The word “Hai” or a head nod may be a way for someone to simply avoid saying “No” to allow for you to save face.
Whatever the situation may be when in doubt, doublecheck by simply asking “Ok?” to confirm the situation. Even the slightest hesitation at this point should be taken as “No.”
In Japan: The nail that sticks out the most gets the hammer.
Japanese people are EXTREMELY law-abiding and obedient. Rules are never broken and socially frowned upon behavior is rare. The mass avoidance of sticking out tends to create a pack mentality, both socially and in the workplace. In this regard, individual innovation or bravery is very rare in Japanese culture.
I have seen altercations in Japan (between Japanese people) that would have been interfered with by bystanders in other countries. Here, however, either out of fear or the desire to not bother anyone, nobody got involved except myself or another nearby foreigner.
Japanese people tend to be curious about foreigners.
And can come off, at first, as a bit xenophobic or mildly obsessed, depending on which end of the spectrum they are on. Japan, up until the mid-1800s, was an insulated society, closed off to foreigners out of the desire to maintain a homogenous society and keep their culture intact (this mentality is present today). So, most of this curious behavior is a symptom of that deep-seated mentality. It’s not uncommon for many people in rural areas of Japan to have had little to no exposure to foreigners, outside of movies. That’s why the kids are staring at you.
Japanese Views of Foreigners and Stereotypes
In addition to the rich culture and traditions still strong in Japan today, the mindset and stereotypes towards foreigners present during the pre-Meiji Restoration (pre-1850) days are still somewhat ingrained into the psyche of many Japanese people. Not harmful or ill-intentioned, think of this mindset as not at the forefront of a Japanese person’s thoughts, but imbedded in the background. Some of the opinions and mindsets you are likely to encounter are:
Foreigners are outsiders
Gaijin or Gaijin-san, a term you will hear often, directly translates to “outsider”, and yes, they are talking about you. Above all other aspects of the Japanese views on foreigners discussed here, this is the most important. This mindset has its roots in the pre-Meiji restoration when foreigners were not to be trusted or allowed to enter the country. This term is not entirely negative, as it is commonly used when a Japanese person may explain to another Japanese person that the foreigner in question doesn’t understand a particular cultural aspect. With that said, sometimes you will catch them simply referring to you as “Gaijin-san” even when they may clearly know your name…
When traveling in other countries, it is common to hear Japanese people refer to the local people in that country as Gaijin, which is comical. This should help you understand.
Many Asian countries have been at odds with one another for a very long time, and specifically, some sentiments remain from World War 2. An additional basis for this is rooted in a nationalistic pride that the Japanese have ingrained in them, most recently from turning their economy into the economic powerhouse that it is today from the post-war era. Put more simply, they may have a slight ego when it comes to Asian and international relations. At the end of the day, Japanese people tend to be incredibly proud of their Japan, and there is nothing wrong with that at all. We should all be so fortunate.
Spend some time there and you’ll tend to agree that MANY things are, in fact, better in Japan.
In general, Japanese people are just as susceptible to belief in stereotypes as anyone. When you combine the overall obedient nature of Japanese culture with the lack of exposure many people have with foreigners, you begin to see how foreign stereotyping can become very ingrained into society. There tends to be little reason to question, so they mostly believe and embrace them all. This can, at times, play to your advantage of course.
From England? You can easily be a Football player if you want.
From Texas? Expect people think you’re a cowboy.
Some examples of this are…
American Cool (or) the “Big Strong American”
The two countries have a longstanding relationship which has resulted in the widespread popularity of American entertainment. This includes mostly Hollywood movies, rap, pop music, and sports. Baseball is by far the most popular sport in Japan. Burgers and fries are a treat. If you’re from New York or LA, expect that to impress people for no reason at all other than they may look at these places as being “Cool.” And expect people to grab your arms in amazement if you have any biceps at all.
European Class and Wealth
In Japan, owning any products imported from Europe (particularly Italy or France) is a status symbol. Of course, this is the case in other countries; however, in Japan, it’s another level. Superficiality is ripe, and anything to do with Europe is considered classy.
There are, of course, some negatives to the stereotyping that comes with being a foreigner in Japan. Though they can become frustrating if you live in Japan, you should not be too negatively impacted during your travels.
As an example, prepare for the below to happen:
People may think you know everything about and everyone in your country.
To include all relevant or irrelevant music, movies, and other pop culture. People may ask you things like “Do you know Johnny Depp?” or something similar. (Are you from LA? Yes this will happen). Let them down gently.
People may act afraid of you.
Due primarily to a lack of exposure to foreigners, or from the many stories (in the news or otherwise) of foreigners doing some fairly bad things in Japan. Acting loud and brazenly near the women and kids won’t help dispel these misconceptions. This response is more common in rural areas. Smile and nod.
You may be barred entry from some establishments.
I have found that in most cases it’s because the staff doesn’t speak English, doesn’t have an English menu OR the activities in the place are reserved for locals. Speaking some Japanese can mitigate this. But yes, establishments can bar you from entry based solely on your status as a foreigner, though this will never be the stated reason. Welcome to Japan.
School children and kids will stare at you.
Or even ask to take selfies. Some simply don’t know what you are, have never seen anything like you, and others may think you’re an English teacher and want to speak English with you. It’s cute really.
Everyone and I mean EVERYONE, will assume you don’t speak any Japanese.
And even better: If you have an even remotely Asian looking person in your group (basically anyone with dark tanned skin of the non-Caucasian variety), they will be assumed to be the group communicator. This happens even if you speak a bit of Japanese, and your non-Japanese friend remains silent. This is a very odd phenomenon. Watch the video below for a stunningly accurate portrayal.
If you’re below 30 and a man with short hair, prepare for everyone to think you’re a US servicemember.
This is so true, and in some places, they’ll also suspect that you’re drunk and looking for women. No matter where or what time of day.