Note: “Baka” roughly translates to “foolish.”
This article is not meant to tell you to not to be yourself or that you need to conform and assimilate when in Japan. It is about bringing to light some very distinct cultural differences.
My Grandmama was born and raised in Tokyo, Japan. She is all city. Not one bone of hers resonates with flannels, wild animals or anything involving dirt.
We all know not to wear distressed jeans or have wild messy hair around Grandmama. She will judge you harshly and you will feel like a homeless, classless bum whose life is in shambles if you do.
I can’t count the times she has sat gracefully wearing her pearl earrings and camel colored cashmere sweater with a vodka cocktail and long cigarette in her hand as she stared inquisitively at me or my cousins and assessed our worth.
“You looks like a homeless person, just like a wild woman.”
After a long pause and a few drags of her cigarette later: “Look at you, what are you? Some kind of funny animal?”
She is harsh, unapologetically critical and has the highest standards of anyone I know. (When she does give a compliment, you know you look amazing.)
She will only have the best, nothing less. The best clothing, the most oishi (delicious) food, none of that kitinai stuff because Yoshiko Higuchi does not deal with anything kitanai (dirty).
We all know this and we all approach with caution.
My cousins and I imitate her. We laugh at how she always says “Japan is numba one.”
She is the definition of an elitist.
She has always told us never to get tattoos, because if we went to Japan we would never be welcomed into an Onsens, or that we should never wear red, or even plant red flowers because—duh—that would imply to the world that we were “whores.”
She finds loud people incredibly obnoxious and trashy, and she can’t help to have very strong opinions about food quality.
She was raised to be on point all the time, always striving to look her best and with a very clear set of societal rules instilled in her.
All of her crazy perspectives, expectations or assessments about the way we dress or present ourselves to the world is on point—if you are from Tokyo.
My advice is solely based off of my own experience, including conversations I’ve had with my Grandmama and my own travels to Tokyo.
Here are a few things to consider while traveling there. Be less soto (outside) and more uchi (inside).
1. Always eat and drink sitting down. Do not, under any circumstances, eat or drink while walking through the city.
You may be used to picking up a slice of pizza and walking while you chomp down on your cheesy, doughy slice of heaven and I am pretty sure everyone in the U.S. has enjoyed a coffee while strolling into their day.
You would never think twice about it in the U.S.—it is normal, a part of the culture. I’ve done it countless times.
But don’t do it, at least not in Japan. You will be stared at and you won’t find a bin to toss your trash in afterwards. Eating in public is considered rude and dirty. Food is meant to be eaten while sitting down, or if you do buy a street crepe or grilled octopus on a stick you will find specific areas designated for eating.
2. If you are coughing or have snot dripping down your face, wear a medical mask.
Many people think Japanese people wear these masks to protect themselves against germs.
Japanese people are considerate of society as a whole; they actually wear the masks to protect others from themselves when they are sick.
Follow this considerate etiquette and stop coughing into your hand or blowing your nose in public unless you want a thousand eyes staring at you like you carry the plague.
3. Reconsider wearing jeans. Or go ahead and wear your jeans, and hiking boots.
While you are at it also lug around your backpack. You won’t be criticized out loud, but I am pretty sure you will be under the breath of everyone on the subway. You will quickly notice not very many people wear jeans, or anything less than a pair of slacks.
I could hear my grandmama’s voice in my head as I walked through the streets of Ebisu.
“What are you some kind of funny animal? You look like some kind of funny mule, some kind of work horse. Look at you. Some kind of homeless wild woman!”
I guarantee she would not have wanted to introduce me as her granddaughter to anyone while I wore my Kayland hiking boots and lugged around my giant REI backpack.
Everyone there is elegant. Women wear their camel colored pea coats with pearls, elegant ankle length skirts and practical black d’orsays. The men are crisp and put together, black suits with tie and polished shoes.
They don’t look like the “funny kind of animal” I apparently resembled.
No one’s hair is “bed head messy,” no one wears ripped up jeans or anything red.
In order to appreciate this, you have to remember the Japanese society is not about standing out, it’s about blending in.
Women are covered in lacey, feminine pastels and embody the frilly feminine fantasy.
In most of Tokyo you might want to skip the jeans and hot pink tee shirt and throw on a muted lacey dress and pearls.
4. Don’t be loud.
I am a very quiet person, so this has never been a point of contention for me. If you are in touristy areas like Akihabara and Shibuya you will find obnoxious, loud and crude people, but I can almost promise you with certainty they won’t be Japanese, they will likely be a gaijin (foreigner).
The Japanese use silence as much as speaking for communication.
5. Cover those pearly whites.
Covering your mouth when you laugh is common and polite. Showing bone is considered unclean according to ancient Buddhist tradition.
6. It’s not all about you.
This is the golden rule in Japan. In Western culture it is all about individualism; we strive to be better than everyone else, to beat our peers and to win! Words like “self-made,” “unique” and “self-motivated” all repeat themselves throughout our Western culture.
On the other hand, Japan is cohesive and inclusive. People think about how their actions can or will affect the group. Words like “interwoven” and “interdependent” are more descriptive of Japan.
In the West, we say “The squeaky wheel gets fixed.” In Japan, you can say “The nail that stands up get hammered down”.
Psychologist Hazel Rose Markus asked people to fill out a survey. She offered a hand full of pens to use, and four were orange and one was green; Westerners were more than likely to pick the pen that stood out, while Asians were more likely to pick one that was more like the others. If you are a Westerner and you have a negative self-image, the effects are far more powerful than if you are Japanese.
Japanese are more likely to attribute their feelings toward the whole situation or circumstance—not themselves.
If you are in Japan try and think holistically rather than individualistically. When you are on an escalator, stand on the left side so others can walk faster on the right. If you are sick, cover your face with a mask. Always conduct yourself politely and be considerate of others around you.
If we can learn anything from the Japanese it is consideration.
Our Western tendencies are hard to cover up—they slip out without even noticing. But if you are aware of some of these cultural differences you can represent the gaijin (foreigner) in a better light.
You will still stick out like monkey in a suit, but at least you will stick out like a monkey in a respectable suit.
Author: Jess Jamison
Editor: Alli Sarazen
Photo: The Frelens/Flickr