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7 Habits You Learn After Living in Japan

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.

By 5 min read

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

sleeping_salaryman

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

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.

  • Isidro says:

    Mexican food isn’t rare… it’s delicious!

  • maulinator says:

    Other people have mentioned this but the author is clearly from the US. I think aside from the local practice of bowing etiquette and maybe the Japanese toilets, the rest of the article is not just for Japan. The author has never been on the LIRR in NY on a THursday or Friday evening. People pass out drunk all the time on the trains heading into Long Island. I have seen some pretty creative sleeping forms in the cars. Maybe not as gymnastic as some salarymen, but pretty creative.
    A lot of supermarkets in the US require you to bag your own stuff as well, so I was not surprised with that either. LA is banning plastic bags so people are bringing their own bags to the supermarket as well…..
    Bowing etiquette is a pretty Asian thing, but it is comparable to the etiquette of shaking hands. Firm grip, make eye contact, release. No limp fish handshakes.
    Also elarning to use the Japanese toilets is a huge upgrade in life, as I know plently of people who have shipped the Japanese toilets back to the US. So yes it is something to get used to but it is an upgrade, no question.

  • Mii says:

    Well, almost every country in the world uses the metric system, so this is pretty much an USA problem (I know a very few other countries also don’t use it).

    Regarding the “you have to pack your own groceries” issue, in China you also have to do it and they don’t use plastic bags in supermarkets. In Brazil sometimes you have to pack your own groceries too. I think most of these problems you talked about apply only for americans or maybe for americans and a few other countries in the world. I don’t think they are, like, “habits every gaijin has to deal with when coming to Japan”.

  • Gaijinn says:

    Well everyone uses metric system except murica.

  • mariamaria says:

    lol@pic #2japanese people don’t sleep like that on the
    train though…

  • David Ramgobin says:

    feels like i’d fit in comfortably…except for the bowing part

  • Martin McNickle says:

    Meh, I refuse to sleep on the train.

  • Kohana Kujo says:

    If only i was given a chance, i would love to visit there. 🙂 Hopefully, able to find a work there. Thanks for this article.

  • sheven18 . says:

    Sounds like living in the Metro North East of the United States you know New York or Boston. At least with 2,3,4,6 “With 4 your lucky to find a public trash can that is not overflowing.”

  • Luke Jennings says:

    In the UK we also use the metric system for measuring units, we drive on the left hand side AND we pack our own food at the supermarket (usually)! Japan sounds just like home 🙂

    • Izu says:

      but distance n speed in miles isnt it?

      • James says:

        Yeah we measure in miles in the UK. I looked it up and british citizens have an easier time getting a japanese licence compared to american citizens. Our road systems and laws are almost the same

  • Sara E says:

    You get your groceries packed for you?? :O I thought no contry did that…

    • Charmine Joy B. G says:

      Here in japan you have to pack your own groceries. 🙂 and there are also some supermarkets that they dont give you plastic bags! You have to bring your own or buy from them. It happens to me sometimes if im not so familiar with a store. But in the philippines their are baggers that pack or bag your items for you in supermarkets and malls! 🙂

  • rahatakhan says:

    After being here for so long, in addition to what I just read above, I learnt the futility of obsessing after and accumulating stuff. Space is precious here (especially if one is living in the middle of a big city like Tokyo or Osaka) and once or twice a year, one religiously gets to evaluate all his belongings and actually realizing that there were some things taking up precious space in my home, that I hadn’t used in a year and do not see any use for in the future. Comparatively, back home I end up, in a futile effort, try and get my parents to get rid of atleast those items I know have been lying around since before I came here and no one having touched any of it since.
    In addition I am amazed at observing that as some sort of unwritten rule, homeowners regularly also daily clean up the sidewalk or street adjacent to their properties.
    There are more observations and they can make a very long list but, as a word of advice to all, I would like to mention that even after living here for nearly 20 years, I still frequently encounter aspects about this society that are new to me and most importantly always have a positive impact.

    • kelsey says:

      All of this is so true. I also noticed how shopkeepers even clean outside their shop. Could observe forever I feel like!

  • Mark Elrod says:

    I lived in Japan for, nearly, 12 years. I have only been back to the United States for five months & I am STILL in culture shock. Or, maybe it’s more like culture rejection.

    Though the cordial interaction in Japan may be at face value, at least they have that cordial interaction. A lot of Americans I encounter are rude. I see people, nearly, every day, who throw their trash on the ground.

    I sat at a bus stop next to this idiot who bought food from a convenience store & ate it at the bus stop. Each time he would unwrap an item, he would throw the wrapper/container on the ground right in front of him.

    THERE WAS A TRASH CAN TO HIS LEFT! It was less than three feet from him, yet he threw his trash on the ground, as if Earth is his personal trash can.

    I see people like that & feel disgust for the people we have in our country: rude, arrogant, boisterous & uncultured.

    • Aaron Riley says:

      I’ve seen plenty of Japanese people litter and I’ve been here for 8 years. Just today an overweight woman looked me, a person in crutches and an old woman in the eye before closing an elevator on us instead of holding it open for two seconds. The notion that Japan is a utopia is garbage. There are assholes here just like everywhere else. They’re just quieter about it.

    • Michael C. Kielb says:

      I’ve been back for 7 years and still haven’t fully adjusted. Get ready to be bitter the rest of your life unless you move back to Japan.

      • Nick says:

        Well you just ruined my day. I have been back in the US for a little over a year now and my wife and both my boys daily comment on missing something from Japan. We figured it will get less frustrating over time but maybe not. We need to get back to Japan…America is not what we remember.

    • kelsey says:

      Mark, you took the words right out of my mouth. I feel the exact same way, and it disgusts and disappoints me! “Culture rejection” is such a good way to describe it, I want to start using that!

  • Ben Midland says:

    When I lived in Japan during the 80’s bowing was not so much of a common habit yet for me as foreigner. Obviously something changed during the years after. Getting adapted to the Japanese way of life was still ‘easy’ comparing with now. It would be a wonderful experiment to return to Japan again, just to see the differences. Maybe one day, after my first novel will be published in Japan.

  • Steveo1984 says:

    Im from England and our steering wheel is on the ‘other side of the car’ and we are used to driving on the left side of the road…

  • Mikichan20 says:

    I knew most of these and I am not an American or from any of these countries you mentioned, but in my country (Croatia) we use kilometres and centimetres instead of inches so we are unfamiliar with that. Also regarding the last 7th custom ; we DO have to bag our groceries ourselves, we do not have that custom of someone else doing it for us, which we actually don’t mind because we don’t want others putting our staff that we bought into our bags… as for everything else that was interesting, knew most of it.

    • kelsey says:

      Interesting, I would like to visit more countries that have the same customs as these

      • bk says:

        You bag your own groceries in Korea also. It seems to be a lot more common in the health food stores here in California as well. I don’t mind it at all either.

      • Mikichan20 says:

        99% of Europe (the ones I mentioned)

  • Michael Rodriguez says:

    Miss the escalator etiquette.

  • Felipe Sandoval says:

    Dear America, start using the metric system. It is embarrassing.

    • bk says:

      No thanks! I don’t see why it’s necessary at all. Not all countries have to do everything exactly the same. I like the fact that I can use both systems at times. And why would it be embarrassing? There are much more embarrassing things about the U.S. than how we choose to measure things.

    • Batman 1988 says:

      Just don’t do the crazy stuff we do in the UK.

  • Tiamat says:

    And then, when returning to the USA, you bow at everyone still and get all the funny giggles. yep.

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