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7 Rookie Mistakes to Avoid When Visiting Japan

Avoid these seven rookie mistakes to make your next visit to Japan a smooth one.

By 5 min read

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.

food

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.

paying

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

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.

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  • Benjamin Vallejo Jr says:

    Nothing about bowing?!?!? Sometimes a visitor tries to outdo a bow, especially by department store greeters or when meeting a host! Mr Obama is an example when he visited the Emperor in his palace!

  • Lessa says:

    Number 2!
    Number 6! But then, I had a very flexible schedule so I only used the super jam-packed train once.

  • MangaEngel says:

    I was regulary guilty of 7 while being in Niigata .__.
    My (foreign) friends and I made many trips to the country side or to castles on weekends and – be it out of boredom on the travel to the destination or out of excitement on the way back – we babbled a lot. Though we tried to keep it quiet.
    And the english teacher that already lives in Japan for six years now was just as guilty as I was when I had been there for barely two weeks.

    Though we agreed on being quiet during noon, in the early morning and late evening, simply because we could see that many people looked tired.

    • kelsey says:

      Haha, I know how you feel! I’m not even considered a very loud person in America, but there have been times on the train when I just can’t help laughing loudly about something!

  • Pierre says:

    Mistake no. 1735: leaving the store without your 1 yen change on a 19 999 yens bill. It was July and the poor lady ran after me in a scorching heat.

  • Charmine Joy B. G says:

    Im sorta guilty in number 5! Haha! XD before i really thought i should respond or say something. But now i just smile. While in no. 7, i feel a little awkward with regards with my fellow filipino. If anyone is aware, filipinoes are loud and fun people. And they like to talk.and not aware they are being too loud for others. Specially for nihonjin who are always quiet. As for me being an anime otaku im so aware of japanese cultures the basic dos and donts atleast…

    • micheleferrucci says:

      Everyone was guilty, c’mon 🙂 My first days in Japan were always like “hello!”, “oooh good morning to you sir!” ahahahaha

    • kelsey says:

      Haha, I have a lot of Filipino friends in Japan, it’s always fun seeing so many cultures come together even though they’re so different!

  • Eric Bourland says:

    >>>Its not rude

    it’s

  • mchan1 says:

    Food in restaurants… When I’m out with people (esp. fellow Asians), I’m used to having the food served when it’s Ready instead of waiting for everything to be prepared and served at once. Rarely does that happens now so I don’t know what type of people you go out with.

    When visiting different places in Asia, ALWAYS carry cash! Period! Even in China! It’s not a big deal per se but when you’re used to paying by debit/credit card in the States, you get used to it! Remember.. you are NOT Home, wherever you are but in Asia!

    Taking a train… very similar to other transits in HK, China or Singapore… it’s crowded. The next train may be crowded as well so you might as well squeeze in and bear it! Same goes if you visit different parts of Europe like London.

    Everywhere you go, you try to adapt into the local culture and customs. It’s OK if you don’t fit in as you’re not a native but at least try, even if you make mistakes! Most people/visitors don’t know so who really cares?! Learn once and live with it and try to do it better the next time.

    No worries 😉

  • CheapoGreg says:

    My biggest initial issue was confusing milk and drinking yoghurt at the supermarket

    • kelsey says:

      Haha I’m sure a lot of people have done that one! Their yogurt is more thin than American style anyway 😛

  • LunaticNeko says:

    – Shoes! Leave them outside the building! Look at the flooring for cue: your shoes MUST be off for wooden or tatami floor. If you remember this rule you will probably do just fine in many places.

    – Drinking is socialization. Don’t drink to get drunk. Public intoxication can be bad. Really bad. If you go in groups, you will shame the rest of your group too because they have to manhandle you in the train on the way back.
    – At a bar (izakaya), I’m not sure if there’s a hard-and-fast rule about pouring drinks for senior OR junior, but at least never pour for yourself.
    – Senior people (especially managers or professors) will make intent to pay. Don’t cross their dominance. If you’re a visiting manager or professor … nice try, but they will also press a strong intent to pay as well because they’re the host.
    – Some trains don’t go all the way to terminal station. My friends always make a habit of getting on the non-terminal train just to exit midway and wait. I don’t know why they do that, but after a year they still insist they do so.
    – Don’t underestimate stored-value cards like SUICA or ICOCA.
    – Even if it’s made by Hitachi which powers many big electrical solutions in the world, Hyperdia train time-table can still suck sometimes and offer Limited Express trains or short Shinkansen rides out of a whim. Double-check.

    • Public intoxication is not a rare sight at all.

      Also, regarding train schedules, have you tried using Jorudan?

      • LunaticNeko says:

        Yes, but many people seem to get culled into using Hyperdia for some reason. They still stick to it. Even Google is better than it now, more intuitive, more insightful.

        Regarding public intoxication, it’s mostly from my experiences that we got reprimanded by the office when it happens to us. Maybe it’s policy, maybe they mean it, I’m not sure myself.

    • Anthony Joh says:

      I don’t know about the first one. I’ve seen a lot of super drunk salarymen being carried by his colleagues back to the train and they all seem to be laughing and having a good time.

      • Tara Babystar says:

        That’s because drunk japanese men are different than drunk western men. I also seen a lot of them but they were always polite and tried to “behave” while western men mostly don’t give a shit…

  • Nel Li says:

    With the exception of the Tipping + “Expecting everyones food to arrive at the same time”, I pretty much do everything else here in NYC.. ex being quiet on the train, paying by cash, etc.

  • How about, expecting to frequently see rubbish bins?

    For my first visit, in 2000, I recall being frustrated not being able to easily find a trash bin. Well, I eventually noticed that people don’t ordinarily eat while they are walking, and for those that do, they already knew that convenience stores/scattered vending machines are the best places to throw things away…(and ママチャリ, but that’s another story).

    Oh, and Japan was the first country (it was in Kanazawa) where I was stopped for jaywalking. The crossing guard said, in English, “red means stop,” so that was a treat.

    Jonathan
    http://buildingmybento.com

    • Haryono Adigunawan says:

      LoL… that same experience.. hahaha.. carrying PET bottles everywhere until we found trash bin at first sight…

    • MangaEngel says:

      I found it hilarious, because in Germany, there are trash cans everywhere, yet its dirty. In Niigata, NO trashcans at all and yet you could eat from the ground.
      In the end, I prefered Japan and simply got used to always have a plastic bag with me to put trash in

    • Charmine Joy B. G says:

      Oh yeah! Me too! I always say to myself why do they have trash cans??and i have to go to a supermarket or convini…sigh* and i always end up with trash in my bag or pocket… because i felt guilty if i will trow anywhere.

    • kelsey says:

      That’s so true, I had the same experience with the trash cans! And when my family visited it seemed to be the only bad thing they had to say about the country. But it’s true; the Japanese don’t walk and eat, everything has a time and a place, and the place for trash is near where the food is sold!

    • Anthony Joh says:

      Yes, this drove me crazy the first time I visited Japan.

      • MrDisaster says:

        haha same about the bins! Before my trip to Tokyo, I knew there was not a lot of bins in the street, but I really had no idea that the only ones I’d see would be next to a konbini. Every day, when I got back home, my pockets well full of plastic wraps and my bag packed of empty plastic bottles.

  • Ryan DeVon says:

    Thanks for the heads up. I’m heading to Tokyo in August for a conference but I hope to network and find a job in the city as well.

  • Melissa Harriet Parnaby says:

    I was surprised that eating and drinking in public/on the train wasn’t listed

    • kelsey says:

      Yea, I’ve heard mixed feelings on that one. I saw a lot of Japanese people snacking and especially drinking alcohol on the train… Did you have a different experience? The train is one of the most confusing cultural experiences in general I think.

      • MangaEngel says:

        I agree.
        I heard that people don’t do it, but I saw it a lot in the japanese subway and I heard that on bigger trains, its even encouraged with buyable obento.
        So I simply got used to have a bite when I really felt hungry. Though I usually prefer to not eat on a journey, be it in Japan or elsewhere 😛

        • Michelle McGarrity says:

          I once asked a student and was told that if it’s not packed, it’s okay to eat or drink on the train but if it’s packed (and could possibly spill on people) that’s when it’s considered rude.

  • Cedric Ingrand says:

    Surprised you didn’t mention the toilet slippers. #shudder

  • Ogi-san says:

    A great observation indeed. This will surely help those come here for the first time. (^-^)v

    • kelsey says:

      Thank you! I hope it does, the culture in Japan is so unique, there’s a lot to learn!

  • Michael Jaye says:

    I’ve found that my Visa card was more widely accepted the last couple of trips to Japan. Maybe things are improving ?

  • Frank S says:

    Was surprised that “Taking a taxi from the airport to the city” did not make the list.

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