Unseen sides of Japanese manners: Unraveling the mystery

Japan is the land of good manners, and it makes for a very safe, clean and polite society. For newcomers it’s a honeymoon trip full of mysterious social interactions and one is humbled by Japanese kindness and generosity.

After 11 years I still love Japan for many reasons, but the mystery is gone and I’ve experienced some not-so-wonderful sides of life here. I wanted to write about some of the lesser known side effects and consequences of 4 very nice Japanese manners.

While I support my opinions with facts and true stories, please understand that I love Japan and am not Japan-bashing! But from an American’s perspective, there are some hilarious, shocking and at times nasty things that happen, and it sure is fun to share.


The Good

Japanese people are the best in the world at this, no question about it. Anyone who’s taken Tokyo trains at rush hour will tell you, they’re ultra-organized, people are quiet, and with the exception of some very rude old ladies who deserve a special place in hell, they don’t cut or push. Japanese even appear to love waiting in lines, because you see them everywhere, and sometimes in the oddest of places. When Krispy Kreme opened in Tokyo, there were hordes of Japanese for days on end waiting for over 1 HOUR AND 45 MINUTES to buy donuts. Donuts.

The Dark Side

Sure, they’ll stand in line for an hour, but when they finally get in somewhere like a restaurant they take their sweet time and don’t seem to feel any need to pick up the pace. Hence the long lines, folks! Let’s get a move on! Wait, they like lines so I guess it all works out for them.

How standing in a Japanese line made me want to go postal

I used to belong to a gym, and my experience in the shower room made me question this notion that Japanese are polite and considerate. With apologies, imagine a line of naked, stinky guys waiting for a shower stall to open up, and yours truly in there, too. It usually wasn’t a lot of guys, maybe 7 or 8 waiting for 5 shower stalls. Even so, it wasn’t unusual for over 30 minutes to go by for one of those godforsaken showers to open up.

And when one finally did open up and some dude who’d been waiting for 30 minutes stepped in at last, I thought surely he’d skip scrubbing behind the ears to help a brother out, after all he knows what we’re going through! But no, these Japanese guys obviously wanted to be CLEAN no matter what. Oh, and they absolutely loved to hawk deeeep loogies over and over. (If you’re unaware what this means, check out this NSFW video but beware, it’s really gross and contains foul language. Surprisingly, many Japanese men do this loudly in public places.) I don’t even want to know what else was going on in that stall. They certainly weren’t concerned about conserving water. About 5000 times I wanted to yell, “COME ON, LET’S GO!!!” But I never did, because I’m polite.


The Good

Unlike many other places I’ve been in the world, Japanese people tend to mind their own business, and I really love this aspect of Japan. That being said, three exceptions immediately come to mind: 1) store workers vying to get you into their stores who say in the most annoying voices possible “IRRASHAIMASE” and more, 2) political candidates prior to elections who drive around with their loudhorns blaring, and 3) the really shady guys standing on busy street corners who approach younger girls and ask them to do…something.

But other than that, people leave you alone. For example, Japanese homeless don’t ask you for change, and there’s no version of that disconcerting guy I ran into in Boston who glared at me and said in a menacing and accusing tone, “You have no idea who you really are.” In 11 years this sort of thing has never happened to me here. Sometimes you just want to be left alone to walk down the street, and in Japan you can stay all day in your own little cocoon if you want.

The Dark Side

Usually Japanese people avoid talking to strangers, and you can test this by asking a convenience store clerk how he’s doing that day. All you want him to say is “Fine, thanks,” but instead you realize you’ve put him in a socially awkward situation as he avoids eye contact with you, laughs nervously and finishes your transaction in record time. “Oh yeah,” you recall, “I’m not supposed to engage in friendly banter with the cash register guy.” But there’s a darker side.

3 Eye Opening Experiences

#1 – I was sitting in a sushi restaurant, the kind with a circular conveyor belt and the chefs in the middle. It was a small place, packed with young and old happy customers. Suddenly some old guy in his 60s blew up about something one of the chefs did, and I mean he really gave that chef a piece of his mind. I’d been in Japan less than a year at that time so unfortunately I couldn’t catch what he was saying. He bellowed in a macho, deep, raspy voice, rolling his Rs and spittle was even jumping out onto the plates of maguro and unagi. It was intimidating and ridiculous, and went violently against the grain of Japanese protocol. One of the workers gingerly stood near him and apologetically begged him to keep his voice down, but this extremely rude old geezer went on and on, doing his best to frighten the hell out of everyone there. And I know what people were thinking: this guy might be yakuza! No phone calls to the cops, no protests; everyone just allowed this idiot to blow his lid for a while, and when he stormed out it was like nothing had happened. It was surreal.

(It reminds me about earthquakes here. After an earthquake, my legs are like jelly for a while, but Japanese immediately resume programming.)

#2 – I was walking down the street one fine evening, when I saw the strangest thing. Some old guy in his 60s (what is it with these guys?) in a cheesy jumpsuit was standing in the street and yelling at a young couple in a car. I didn’t see whatever made him angry, but he was gladitorial. Now, those people could have easily driven their car around him, but they just sat there looking at their floorboards. Then incredibly, the old guy opened the young woman’s door and got right in her face. She wasn’t even driving, so what could she have possibly done to piss this guy off? And why weren’t their doors locked? I couldn’t believe my eyes as the young couple still just sat there motionless. I’m no tough guy, but if someone did that to a girl in the passenger seat of my car, I’d certainly do SOMETHING, like let him have it or just drive off! After about 2 minutes of this guy screaming directly in the woman’s face and blocking traffic as well, he went on his way, whereas the couple drove slowly off. And I had to close my gaping jaw with my hands.

#3 – I was in Shimo Kitazawa, a funky area in the west of Tokyo, and saw Japanese road rage at an extremely busy intersection. A guy got out of his car and screamed his head off at the driver of another car for a few minutes. But get this: there was a police station about 10 yards away with 2 or 3 policemen standing there watching! They did absolutely nothing about the raving lunatic blocking traffic and making a massive scene. I’d like to see someone try that in front of a cop in NYC.


The Good

There’s one very useful Japanese word you won’t find in any textbooks. It’s “ah” but it’s pronounced like the ‘a’ in ‘father’ and cut short at the end, as if you were about to say “aquarium” but someone punched you HARD in the stomach before you even got close to the ‘q’. “Ah” is said before apologies, acknowledgements and replies indicating understanding.

Many Japanese people take politeness very seriously and never drop their guards when it comes to good manners (except when they are really, really drunk). While it can require a lot of energy to keep up with them, if given the choice I’ll take good manners over rudeness. Besides, once you learn the ins and outs of the social interplay, you realize it’s like a game everyone’s in on, and you can play too. For example you can see many young, alternative-looking young people all over Tokyo with tattoos, crazy hairdos, bizarre costumes, etc. You’d expect rebels like these to be rude and scary, but no, even they go through the motions. In Japan, if you have bad manners you make yourself look bad and lose dignity.

The Dark Side

After working with many of the same people for over 10 years, I still can’t get past the shallowest social conversations with most of them. It’s like they are polite and courteous to the bone and unable to let it all hang out. We should be on a first-name basis by now, but they still use all of the Japanese honorifics and complicated polite language with me.

I often wonder what they’re like when they go home, because something’s gotta give. Who’s the real Watanabe sensei? Does he ever hang in his living room in just his shorts, blast X Japan and dance like no one’s watching? Does Mrs. Kawasaki ever speed her Prius down the highway with the windows wide open, a flask in one hand and that poof in her hair flapping halfway out the sunroof?

Field trip from hell!

If you’re like me, your image of a school field trip includes packing kids on the school bus, singing songs, heading to a zoo and basically having a good ol’ time. Well, I had that in my mind when I went on my first Japanese school field trip. I should have known better; my school isn’t anything like schools in the States, make no mistake. While it’s an all-girls school and teachers are very supportive and kind to students, it often resembles military school. The uniformity of it all is absolutely shocking if you aren’t used to it.

My jaw started dropping when we got to the hotel at our destination. I got out first with the other teachers. Next was the ‘leader’ students, about 5 of them. They were given strict orders, and proceeded to jog single file to the front desk of the hotel. Fun bus time was clearly over. The remaining troops on the bus were commanded to get out and line up by groups, and NO TALKING. Would you believe these students were all 17-18 years old? Bet you were picturing 11 year olds.

That evening, we had an epic teacher meeting. Seats at the tables were appropriately assigned by rank (this is taken very seriously and happens at every meeting at my school). The hotel staff cruelly put hot coffee and delicious cake in front of us which no one touched. The meeting began, and they proceeded to discuss in the most minute detail about the day’s happenings. “At precisely 3:12, X-san crossed the street at the highway rest area alone, without her partner.” “Nooo, are you serious?” “Yes, she’s always so troublesome!”

American girls at this age think they’re tough because they can join the military and vote, but at my school they’ve been in boot camp for years.

After HOURS of sitting at the meeting staring at my untouched coffee and cake, I vowed to never go on one of these so-called ‘field trips’ again. C’mon, let go of it people! The students are all alive, we’re in the middle of a beautiful mountain range, let’s toast to the good life and celebrate this transient moment! No? Oh, please continue with item 374. She did what? Left a clump of untouched rice on her dinner plate? You don’t say, will wonders never cease?


The Good

The word ‘omiyage’ means souvenir in Japanese, but just translating the word does it no justice. It’s like saying the Brazilian ‘Carnaval’ is a festival. It’s based on a spirit of sharing and generosity, and connects people in a very nice way. It also is a great source of stress because it gets very complicated.

The Dark Side

True gift giving comes from generosity, but in Japan it’s often purely obligatory, like forced charity. For example, if you’re getting married in Japan (which I avoided), make sure you invite as many guests as you can. That’s because they’re all supposed to bring money to the wedding, and luckily for you, it’s not an amount of their choosing. Wedding guests have to fork over about US$300 per person! The bad news is, you and your new spouse have to use most of that money to pay for your traditionally exorbitant Japanese wedding which includes the return gifts you have to give the guests. Are you following this?

So whenever I get invited to a wedding, no matter how dear the friend, I’m congratulating them on the outside, but I’m really thinking, “At least I had the decency to get married abroad,” or “Oh great, can’t wait to pay 300 bucks for a coffee pot and Calvin Klein handkerchief.” My wife and I were invited to 3 weddings one year, you do the math. Ah, I’m sorry, ah, excuse me, from now on I’m out of town for all Japanese weddings.

Please stop. Please.

We used to have wonderful neighbors at our old place. They were an older couple, the husband maybe 85 and his beautiful wife much younger, I’d say 65. The reason he could nab such a younger babe was because he was the head of a huge promotional business in Tokyo, and many of his clients were among the most famous celebrities in Japan. We hardly ever saw him, but she regularly dropped by our place to give us gifts, usually some obscure seasonal Japanese vegetable you had to Google in order to figure out how to eat.

Sounds nice, right? Certainly, but in Japan you have to give back, and with neighbors like this there’s no end to the exchanges. You get, you give, you get, you give, it goes on ad nauseam. And no matter what they say, they’re silently expecting a return gift of equal or lessor value (and when you give it to them, it’s always, “Oh, what’s this? I can’t accept this! You shouldn’t have, I’m sorry to trouble you, No, No, I, Oh your kindness knows no bounds…” It got to the point where we would dread the doorbell. Hey look, if you need a cup of sugar or are low on milk don’t hesitate, but could you please STOP GIVING US STUFF? THANK YOU!


4 thoughts on “Unseen sides of Japanese manners: Unraveling the mystery

  1. You sure do have a gift for story-telling! You make all these trivial but infuriating little knick-knacks of every day life seem quite wondrous, and rather fun on the whole.
    I love the story about the field trip from Hell; it reminds me of so many field trips of my own…
    In fact, all the stories give us quite a unique insight.
    Keep it up; I really relish reading your posts!
    Have a great day!
    PS: last day of final exams tomorrow, then off for summer holidays on Friday after a last staff meeting; 2 months off! Yeah! I sure need it: I managed to give myself a severe case of tennis elbow, from the repetitious movements of all that end-of-year exam correcting, typing of report cards, and all and sundry white boards covered in writing during numerous classes.classes. So now, when I’m off and would have the time to do so… I can’t even go horse-riding, as I can hardly use my right arm properly. Jeez!

      • Thanks for your get-well wishes. Would you believe I can’t even do yoga because of a stress-related bad back?
        This job sure can tie you into knots, especially (I think) here in France where teacher-bashing is a national sport, not only among discontented pupils, but also among grouchy parents (who’d rather blame the teacher for poor results than look at their own lack of parenting) and all the way up to the Minister of Education (right now a blasé philosopher who has been found out to be getting a stupendous salary from a university he’s never even set foot at or taught a single class in!)
        So, I must admit, it’s wonderful to hear of a country where people are polite to each other. I suppose you have parent-teacher meetings (?) Are they well attended? How do the parents act? Do they gang up on teachers? Or do they actually listen and take heed of what’s said? Considering Japan’s results in industry, commerce etc… I suppose parents dio pay much closer attention to schooling than they do here!
        Anyhow, no more typing for a few days…
        Back online soon. Take care.

      • Gosh, not even yoga? Acupuncture might do the trick!
        Your experiences in France sounds exactly like what I hear about America these days. It’s been over 10 years since I’ve taught in the States, but I hear a lot about teacher-bashing coming from all sides.
        I don’t have to attend parent-teacher meetings at my job, because we foreign teachers aren’t homeroom teachers. I’ll never forget doing that in the US, it was the hardest part of the job. Here in Japan there exists, of course, the “monster parents” syndrome, but it’s a whole different creature than what I know from the Western world. The most difficult parents seem to be incredibly detail-oriented, they love to sweat the small stuff (it’s something that drives me crazy in Japan every once in a while, and why they make such reliable cars!). But mostly, the meetings are very well attended and parents are pleasant. Teachers on the whole get more respect out here, at least on the outside. It’s hard to know what people really think, as Japanese are experts at keeping true emotions from showing in their expressions. And let’s not forget that some teachers aren’t deserving of respect, so parents do need to be vigilant, as I will be when my daughter gets older.

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