How to “Bow like a Japanese”: Lessons in Culture from an American Living in Japan

There are the obvious cultural characteristics of Japan that everyone knows: trade your shoes for slippers indoors, bow, eat with chopsticks. But there are a few other differences I learned only once I’d lived in the country. The cultural differences weren’t profound, but were quite useful once I knew them.

Perhaps even the most obvious of customs like indoor slippers and bowing are best understood through experience. For example, you’ll learn to watch out for those aptly named “bathroom slippers” as you fish one out of the squat toilet because you lost balance in the toilet approach (see below for more information on squat toilets). As for bowing, I’ve learned to bow all the time. When in doubt, bow. You may soon find yourself bowing at the ATM machine when it spits out your money, but that’s okay. It’s better to be thorough and polite to inanimate objects than accidentally rude to human beings.

Here are six things I’ve learned that are worth knowing about Japanese culture.


1. How to Do a Proper Squat

Japanese Squat Toilet

Most public bathrooms offer both western toilets and squat toilets, but at some point when you’re in Japan, you will find yourself with your legs crossed, focusing on anything dry you can think of, and that person in the western toilet stall just won’t come out. It’s time to take on the squat. The squat toilet is simple, really – a ceramic oval in the floor with a flush handle sticking up from one end, but when you face the situation for the first time, it can be confusing. Which way do you squat? Just remember: face the end of the oval that has the flush handle. Added benefit: the toilet paper roll is attached to the wall next to the flusher. A blind reach backwards for toilet paper with your pants down doesn’t always work out so well.


2. Happy New Year! Every single night.

If you hear Auld Lang Syne at night, don’t look for fireworks or for someone to kiss—it isn’t New Year’s Eve. Businesses from grocery stores to ski resorts play the song on repeat to signal that they’re getting ready to close for the night. It is the Japanese’s non-confrontational way of saying “Get out!” They picked the perfect song. There’s nothing like Auld Lang Syne played five times in a row to make you want to escape. Buy your bananas or sneak in a last run down the slopes, and leave so the nice workers can go home.

Listen to the Auld Lang Syne Audio File


3. DO Drink the Water

It may not rival the best bottled spring water in taste, but public water in Japan is safe to drink. Even in cities. It’s a refreshing fact to know if you’re coming to the country from less developed Asian nations. Nothing says you’re out of Vietnam and in Japan like keeping your mouth open in the hostel shower.


4. This One’s for the Ladies

No Low Cut Shirts in Japan

Tall collars are the standard for Japanese women

Unpack those low cut shirts from your bag before you travel to Japan. Even in the sweat-drip of summer, Japanese women don’t show cleavage. I made the low cut mistake during the first week I moved to Japan. It made for a very self-conscious day. If you have a foreigner’s face, chances are eyes will already be glancing at you, and a low cut shirt will make you hyper-aware of your clothing, or lack thereof. It’s a nice thing to know before you go if you’re hard-pressed for suitcase space. On the flip side, you can still flash flesh in Japan: mini skirts abound.


5. Cheap Date

Japanese Movie Theater

Movie tickets are actually cheaper at night in Japan

Retrain your western brain and go to the movies at night for discounted tickets. Night showings at movie theaters are almost half the price of matinees. This doesn’t make going to the movies cheap in Japan, but cheaper than normal. While you wait for the night showing of Miyazaki’s latest anime wonder, you can go slurp down a bowl of ramen with the money you just saved on your movie ticket.


6. Keep the Change (and other dining rules)

Japanese Dining Rules

The Japanese probably won’t expect you to know the rights and wrongs of dining etiquette, but here are some guidelines to steer you through a meal. Put your chopsticks down before you tell a gesture-heavy story. In Japan, pointing with and waving your chopsticks is rude. To remind myself of the waving chopstick rule, I try to think of it as talking with a full mouth; it turns everyone else at the table off. If you’re at a restaurant, don’t leave a tip (the no tip policy goes for services of any kind). If you try to leave even a little change, chances are the wait staff will track you down to return your forgotten coins. Listen to your mom; don’t point. Instead, use your full hand to point at another person. Your mom’s manners lesson doesn’t cross cultures when it comes to hands on the table, however. In Japan, keep both your hands on the table during the meal. If you’re grabbing dinner on the go, don’t eat while you walk. Even with street vendor food and grocery store samples, Japanese eat the food standing in place, then move on. People tend not to eat on trains as well. Don’t worry about offending anyone though, foreigners are meant to make mistakes.



By Kathie Hagy

Japan, Vietnam, India, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, & China

During her college years, Kathie studied a semester abroad at La Universidad de Salamanca in Spain.  She currently teaches elementary and middle school English in northwest Japan.  Besides travel, Kathie loves hugs, hikes, words that can’t be translated to English, and ice cream.

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How to “Bow like a Japanese”: Lessons in Culture from an American Living in Japan