Some people arrive in Japan knowing the history and culture of the country, obsessed with manga and anime, or having learned more of the language than just “konnichiwa.” While others suddenly get told that they are moving to Japan, it’s the only option for their life for the next two years and they arrive knowing almost nothing.
I was the latter, having arrived with a few thousand others thanks to the U.S. Military. Since I didn’t have the time to get to know the culture before arriving, I made some serious rookie slip-ups. Here’s a look at some of the most common mistakes to avoid that could end up costing you a lot of time, money, or embarrassment.
In the Restaurant
Most foreigners realize that Japanese cuisine is unique, but some visitors aren’t quite so ready for what’s to come in the restaurant atmosphere.
1) Expecting everyone’s food to arrive at the same time.
After working in the food service industry in the United States for years, it is ingrained in me that each guest’s dish should arrive at the same time.. Little did I know, Japan sees food service differently. They make the dishes as quickly and as fresh as possible, and get it to the table precisely when its finished. Often, this means each dish arrives at different times. On many occasions I have finished my meal before my friend even got hers, but have had to force myself to remember “It’s not rude…it’s not rude…”
2) Paying for your bill at the table.
After everyone finishes their meals in a Japanese restaurant, the waiter will often leave the check on the table. This doesn’t mean lay down some cash on the check and wait for them to come pick it up like in America. In most restaurants you pay at the register. I can’t even count how much times my friends and I have been waiting for the server to pick up the check, just to find out we should pay at the register.
3) No tipping.
DON’T DO IT. Period. At least, not in a restaurant. Most people have heard this rule before, but you definitely don’t want to offend the kind staff at the restaurant or make them run after you when they assume you accidentally left some money behind. Because, they will chase you down to return the smallest amount of yen.
At the Store
Speaking of money, there are some major and minor mistakes to avoid when shopping in Japan.
4) Assuming that every store, shop, train station, and tourist attraction takes credit or debit cards.
When I arrived in Japan, I would walk around town every day thinking, “well of course they take cards at the market on Mikasa street!” They didn’t. I would say, “I’m positive we can use our cards at the train station.” We couldn’t. Everywhere I went I kept finding more and more places that didn’t take credit cards and being surprised every time.
What’s worse, I was still using an American card that wasn’t being read at most ATM machines. One day after learning this over-due lesson for the 100th time, I found out that the post office always accept your card in their ATMs. Unfortunately, they’re typically closed on Sunday and often close early during the week. Moral of the story, bring cash! (Note: You may have better luck with 7/11 ATMs than I did, but to be safe always assume cash before you go too far from home)
5) Thinking you are supposed to respond to “Irasshaimase!!!” (いらっしゃいませ).
When you first arrive in Japan and are trying to learn the language and be polite at the same time you end up in a lot of misguided attempts at responding whenever someone speaks to you. I know I did this more than once, using “arigatou” or “konnichiwa,” or whatever would come to my mind when entering a Japanese store and having the staff yell “irasshaimse” at me.
I mean, the Japanese are so quiet otherwise! It’s rather shocking, but don’t worry; nothing is expected of you other than an occasional smile. In case you were wondering, “Irasshaimase,” means, “welcome.”
On the Train
6) “I’ll just get the next train, this ones too crowded.”
I’ve heard this one more than once, definitely a rookie error. Chances are, the next train will either be just as crowded or even more crowded! So, if the train comes and you see a dime sized spot that you can place your foot, wedge yourself in there! The sooner you embrace the madness the faster you will get to your destination.
7) Laughing and talking loudly.
Japan is exciting! You get to hear people talk in a new language, look at all the unique fashion, eat crazy food, and take trains in the most advanced rail system in the world. In all of this excitement, it’s easy to get caught up in conversation or laughing at that hilarious mishap you just had at the coffee shop. However, causing all of this commotion on the train is rude in Japan.
You will occasionally hear exceptions like loud teenagers or salarymen who have had a little too much to drink, but overall it is considered polite to be as silent as possible on the train. It isn’t a place for socializing, but more for sleeping or alone time. Its hard, I know; but the more respect we foreigners can show to the Japanese, the better experiences there are to be had.
No one is perfect, and every foreigner makes mistakes when visiting such a deeply rooted culture. Thankfully the Japanese are a forgiving people, so we don’t have to worry about our slip-ups too much. Live and learn, but avoid as many of these as possible if you want to be able to focus on the fun rather than the frustration of acclimating to this new country.