When you first arrive in Japan, it’s easy to make a lot of rookie mistakes. Japan’s history dates back thousands of years, and their culture shows it. From greetings to eating habits, everything about Japanese customs takes time to learn.
But what happens after you’ve lived in Japan a while? Here are some habits you gain after becoming a veteran of Japanese life.
1) Using a Japanese toilet
When first arriving in Japan, most foreigners cringe at the thought of using the dreaded Japanese-style squat toilet. We happily rush for the western-style one, only to find what seems like a robot attached to the seat with dozens of buttons written in kanji.
The last thing I need right now is a kanji lesson!
After some time in Japan, you don’t give it a second thought. We know the drill, squat or sit; it doesn’t matter. And as for those confusing buttons, regardless of your Japanese level you can control exactly how much pressure you want, temperature and where you want it to spray. Glad those days of confusion and fear are over.
2) How to sleep on the train
If anyone remembers anything from their first trip to Japan, it’s all the Japanese people sleeping on the train. How do they do it? Doesn’t it hurt their neck? And how do they know exactly when it’s their stop and magically wake up at the right time?
Well, after living and working in Japan a while, it become less than mysterious. Since talking or socializing is typically out of the question, it becomes a quiet setting to get away from all of the social stimulation of such a densely populated country. Taking that into consideration after a long workday or even before one starts, it becomes second nature to just pass out on the train, sometimes even on the person next to you.
3) Bringing the necessary supplies
I can’t tell you how many times I left my house during my first Japanese rainy season thinking, “Ah, it cant possibly rain again today, I don’t need my umbrella,” only to find myself rushing into the ¥100 store to buy one before I got totally soaked. After living in Japan for 2 years, you realize that during the rainy season you need an umbrella rain or shine.
In America, you’re lucky if your mom remembered to bring tissues in her purse when you leave the house. In Japan, you realize the importance of tissues, wet and dry, for any occasion. Specifically if you’re a woman who carries a purse, this is something you will not leave home without (especially if you have gained Japan’s extreme cleanliness standards).
And for the blistering hot summer months in Japan, you realize that the Japanese people do not carry around fans to look pretty and traditional. They need them, desperately, especially after having to do as much walking as is required for daily Japanese life. So, after that first summer I learned my lesson: have your fan on you at all times from June-August if you care anything about not getting heatstroke.
4) How to handle your trash
Trashcans (rubbish bins) in Japan seem about as rare as Mexican food. You buy a drink from the vending machines but before you know it, there is no trashcan in sight. Or maybe you decided to eat your bento from the supermarket before you got home, and all you could find was the bottle-shaped holes on the train platform. Well, this lesson is a hard one to learn, but all veterans of Japan have had to do it. You will learn that most konbini stores have trash cans, as does McDonald’s, or you do what the Japanese do and carry your trash home.
5) Appropriate bowing heights and eye contact
If you come from a culture that doesn’t naturally bow, arriving in Japan is very confusing and, at times, comical. The Japanese bow for every occasion from greetings to apologies; while in western culture, bows are saved only for the stage after a performance.
Once you live in Japan, bowing not only becomes normal, but you pick up on the occasions for different levels of bows; whether subconsciously or on purpose. You learn about the 15-degree 会釈 (eshaku) bow, which is used for informal settings or greetings. Then the 30-degree 敬礼 (keirei) for a higher level of respect, and finally the ultimate 45-degree bow called 最敬礼 (saikeirei) for deep apologies or meeting dignitaries. All of these seem to eventually come natural at the right time, even if we can’t explain why.
6) Driving like the locals
For foreigners who aren’t from a very populated area, Japanese roads are a terrifying place. First of all, the streering wheel is on the other side of the car and you are driving on the left side of the road. The traffic lights are horizontal and double stacked, meaning you have to figure out which light is working for you.
In addition, they use the metric system here so you need to convert from miles to kilometers. How is someone from America, Liberia or Myanmar supposed to drive here?! Fortunately they have a great rail network in Japan and driving should just be a last resort for any long distance.
7) Checking out at the supermarket
Another necessary aspect of Japanese life that veterans have learned is how to check out at the supermarket register. You expect it to be a lot simpler at first, and then realize all of the steps to the process after some time. Reject or accept a plastic bag, point card or no, and place the cash directly on the tray provided. Then, you must bag the groceries yourself, which is definitely not a custom I enjoy.
It’s not easy living in Japan at first, but after some time, you’re sure to be a veteran at all of these once confusing aspects of Japanese life.