Japan is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Asia for a number of reasons. Boasting centuries-old architecture, amazing cuisine, and enchanting cherry blossoms that seem to have popped out of a fairy tale book, this fascinating country holds surprises for the whole family. However, if you want to have a truly immersive experience and make the most of your time there, there are a few facts about Japanese culture that you need to take into account before travelling.
According to our teacher from Kyoto, Akio, people who travel to Japan rarely do it just once. And that’s not just because of how naturally beautiful the country is. It’s mainly because of how hospitable Japanese people are.
Japanese hospitality revolves around the concept of Omotenashi. [I stare blankly at Akio; he proceeds to explain]. The term is a compound word in which “omote” means public face – how you want other people to see you –, and “nashi”, which means ‘nothing’. The combination of these words is the principle that dominates Japanese codes of behaviour as hosts: service is from the bottom of the heart, and honesty is the basis of any successful interaction. No hiding or pretending is accepted in Japanese culture.
If you ever take part in a tea ceremony (which, by the way, you should totally do), don’t be self-conscious about your manners, nor afraid of making mistakes. In Japanese culture, the idea behind a tea ceremony is beautifully defined in a famous haiku by Sen no Rikyu, a renowned tea master:
Though you wipe your hands
and brush off the dust
and dirt from the vessels,
what is the use of all this fuss
if the heart is still impure?
The concept of Omotenashi, then, is not about flawless manners, but about openness and sincerity.
Religion in Japanese Culture
When I ask Akio if religion plays such an important part in Japanese culture as I imagine, he pauses before answering. On the one hand, he says, only about 40% of people in Japan endorse organized religions, which is a smaller number than one would expect. On the other hand, it is true that most people in Japan often take part in Shinto and/or Buddhist ceremonies. But unlike what happens with most Western religious sites, Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples often coexist on the same site. Over the centuries, people have tended to mix the two religions so intricately that the term ‘shinbutsu’ was coined to refer to this amalgamation.
The nice thing about religion in Japan is that you don’t have to walk very far to find a sacred site. In fact, you may be surprised to find Shinto shines in unexpected places such as small lanes, trees, mountains, and even at the bottom of skyscrapers. Omairi, which means ‘visiting a shrine’ is such an essential part of life in Japan that it’s not uncommon to see people in suits stopping to pray at a shrine on their way to work.
If you happen to pass a shrine while in Japan (and believe us, you will), you have to bow, offer a few coins, bow again (twice this time!), ring the bell (if there is one) to let the gods know you’ve come to pay your respects, and then say your prayer. You don’t need to memorize any specific chant or verse. You can just thank the gods in your mind and ask for a blessing. Before you leave, bow deeply one last time, and clap. [Did I get that right, Akio?]
The Importance of Bowing
If you thought you were done with bows, then think again. Bowing – or ojigi –, is a big part of human interactions in Japan. And we’re not only talking about employees bowing to their superiors. In Japan, even old friends bow to each other! It is a simple gesture that allows people to show respect and consideration. Of course, how slowly and deeply you bow shows the level of respect or admiration you feel for the person standing in front of you, so it won’t hurt to go for a pronounced bow if you’re introduced to a potential employer or business partner!
How to Hand Over a Business Card
Japanese etiquette is so detailed that there is a correct way to hand over a business card. If you want to show that you respect the person in front of you and you truly care about the information that is being presented to you, there is a series of steps you have to follow:
- Take the card with two hands (and, of course, a small bow!)
- Study the card (even if you don’t understand a word of what is written there)!
- Put it carefully inside your wallet (much better than shoving it into a pocket next to a used Kleenex!)
No Shoes Inside, Please.
If you just bought expensive new shoes, make sure you have lots of walks lined up to show them off, because as soon as you enter a house or even a restaurant, you will be asked to take them off. According to Akio, going inside a home with your footwear on is a very rude thing to do, because you are contaminating a place to which you have been kindly invited. After all, the idea of taking off shoes before entering a closed space is simply to keep the dirt outside.
However, you don’t have to worry about the cold. When you enter a house, restaurant, or hotel, you will see a special shoe area where you can remove your outside footwear and put on indoor slippers. Some places may even have separate toilet slippers!
In short, if you’re travelling to Japan, it may be a good idea to pack a few pairs of nice socks, because you’ll be taking off your shoes a lot during your stay.
When To Be Quiet
If you want to enjoy a scenic train ride across Japanese fields, you had better take a book or a pair of headphones. For, according to Akio, it’s not polite to make noise while using public transport. In fact, people (even business people!) rarely take a call on the train. Keeping your personal and professional life private is a big part of Japanese culture.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that Japanese people are quiet all the time, or that they are not open to engaging in conversation with strangers. It definitely isn’t the case with young people on a night out. According to Akio, Japanese people are actually a lot of fun, and they enjoy drinking almost as much as the average person from Ireland, which is to say a lot. And when they start drinking (usually gathered in or outside bars) they do love to start up friendly chats with foreigners.
Did any of these facts about Japanese culture surprise you?
If you want to learn Japanese from a cultural perspective, you have come to the right place. At Listen & Learn, we work with native Japanese tutors who are great at teaching language in context, making every lesson relevant and for every learner’s specific learning goals. Gary, a client who took an online course with Ai, had this to say about the experience: “Ai is an amazing person, we get along great, she helps me out a ton and the lessons are fun. 10/10!”.
Contact us now and we’ll match you with a native teacher for a completely personalized lesson!