Familiar with Japanese culture? Then you’ll have observed that certain habits we get away with in Malaysia just wouldn’t fly in Japan. Here are 6 pointers that will help you keep the embarrassing mistakes to a minimum when you’re next in Japan.
1. Answering your mobile phone and rattling off on it while you’re on the train? It’s a big no-no. You’ll even find notices in Japanese train stations advising passengers to refrain from talking on the phone altogether when taking public transportation.
Why: For Japanese commuters, train and bus journeys are expected to be peaceful and quiet. Privacy is another motivation – being forced to listen to someone else’s phone conversation is an uncomfortable situation for Japanese people, even if it is one which Malaysians have long become used to.
2. As with anywhere in the world, you’re expected to exchange business cards (a practice called 'meishi koukan') with a new acquaintance for a business meeting and sometimes even outside of a business setting, too.
Basics first: use both hands when giving or receiving business cards. Make sure that your card isn’t torn or unkempt when you’re offering it. Also, when you receive someone’s card, take a moment to read it and make a polite comment on the cardgiver’s occupation – do not simply shove it into your pocket.
Why: Pocketing a card you’ve just received is considered disrespectful to the person who is giving the card. A business card in Japan is generally treated as extension of a one’s personality.
3. Should you take your shoes off before entering a restaurant in Japan? It may not always be necessary, but be sure to ask the restaurant staff before entering, just in case.
When sitting down to a good plate of nigiri sushi, dip the fish-side of the sushi into your soy sauce, but not the rice part.
Also, when paying for your meal, don’t hand the money to the cashier directly. Instead, place your money on the provided tray and your change will be returned to you in the same way. Leaving a tip for waiters is not practiced in Japan.
And no matter how busy you are, do not eat while you walk.
Why: Even Malaysians know in their heart of hearts that eating on-the-go isn’t ideal! But Japanese restaurateurs are more worried about exposing freshly-prepared food to the humidity of the day, which could potentially ruin the customer’s culinary experience (and the restaurant’s reputation by extension).
4. Try learning some key Japanese phrases before your trip. Even though English is spoken and used in signboards in cosmopolitan places like Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto, it’s not as common in other areas, particularly the outskirts.
Important phrases to know: 'konnichiwa' (meaning 'hello') ‘sumimasen’ (meaning ‘excuse me’ or ‘sorry’), ‘arigatou’ (‘thank you’), or even ‘yoroshiku onegaishimasu’, an expression of well-wishes to end a conversation.
Helpful tip: Don’t rely on Google Translate when trying to speak to the locals – instead try downloading a Japanese phrasebook app onto your phone beforehand so you can show them phrases when you’re well and truly stuck for words.
5. Orderly and organised – these might just be the default settings for most Japanese people. When exiting an elevator or a train car while in a crowd, don’t push your way forward - the typical behaviour in Japan is not to obstruct others from getting off first.
Cutting the queues in bus stations or train stations will earn you several angry stares in Japan, so think twice before you try it.
Here’s some helpful escalator advice that's a little different than what we're used to in Malaysia: you should always walk on the left side of the escalator and stand on the right if you don’t wish to walk.
6. Just like showering before hitting the swimming pool, always wash up before you step into the ‘onsen’ Japanese hot springs baths.
These are communal baths, so be sure not to mix in any soap or let your personal towels touch the water when you're entering the tub. Guests with long hair are encouraged to tie up their hair so it doesn't touch the water as well.
If you find that the water's too hot, add in only a little cool water at a time so as not to spoil the temperature for someone else. In some onsen public baths, adding in cold water alone is considered inappropriate.