Japanese Culture For Foreigners: 19 Insider Secrets You Need To Know

japanese culture

You might think Japanese is a hard language to learn.

But what about Japanese culture?

Becoming “culturally fluent” in Japan can be both challenging and fascinating.

Luckily, you’re in the right place!

I’ve curated 19 of the most curious, unique, and downright helpful insights into Japanese customs and etiquette from around the web, so you’re guaranteed to avoid any faux-pas, and sure to leave a meaningful impression on your next trip to the Far East!

Japanese Customs

1. Master the Simple Art of Bowing 

bowing in japanese culture

Source: Tofugu (http://bit.ly/1PmJ14T)

Bowing may seem like a simple enough gesture, but did you know there is more than one way to bow?

There are standing bows and there are sitting bows.

Knowing when to bow, and the appropriate way to bow, in any given situation is another simple way to demonstrate your fluency in Japanese culture.  Tofugu breaks it down for you so you can master bowing in any situation.

2. Get the Gesture Right Every Time 

japanese gestures

Source: http://bit.ly/1PmIxvG

As you might expect, bowing isn’t the only kind of non-verbal communication in Japan!

There are loads of common Japanese gestures for any number of situations:

  • How to give and receive a gift
  • How to call someone over to you
  • How to say excuse me when walking through crowd

Check out this Tofugu article to discover the 30 of the most common gestures in Japan!

3. Don’t Be Shocked – It’s Perfectly Normal in Japan!

crowded trains in japan

Source: http://bit.ly/1PmJlR3

There is some behavior which can be startling to foreigners… despite being completely normal in Japan!

The first few times I received an elbow in the neck on a Tokyo rush hour train was something of a shock!

This Japan Talk article will help you become acquainted with the kind of normal behavior in Japan, which you might be surprised about at first!

Japanese Language

4. How To Answer the Phone in Any Situation

moshi moshi japan

Source: Tofugu (http://bit.ly/1PmJu7b)

Moshi moshi is one of the most common ways to say “hello” when answering the phone.

But did you know it’s not always the best way?

Show your friends and colleagues you really know your stuff by reeling off these alternatives in exactly the right situation. Tofugu breaks it down for you in this helpful article.

5. Learn Some Cool Words Unique to Japanese!

_05_artist-Anjana-Lyer

Artist: Anjana-Lyer

“Age-otori” – when you look worse after a haircut!

Sometimes there are words that just don’t translate back into our native language.  This Boredpanda article highlights 7 interesting Japanese words that don’t translate into English.

6. Onomatopoeia? It Sounds Like…

japanese onomatopoeia

Source: Tofugu (http://bit.ly/1PmKGY7)

Onomato-whata?

In English we see onomatopoeia in comic books.  A classic example, is “bam!” It’s nothing more than a word derived from the sound it makes: meow, crack, tweet, fizzy.

There are thousands of onomatopoeia in Japanese and using them can really add to the richness of your language, bring out your personality, and your cultural savviness.

Tofugu has the ultimate guide on onomatopoeia, but if you’d like a more concise overview you can also check out RocketNews24 or Nihonshock.

Japanese Food

Food is a central part of Japanese culture, and being familiar with Japanese customs around food and dining is an excellent way to demonstrate your cultural savviness!

7. Onomatopoeia For Meal Time

japanese food

Source: Mental Floss (http://bit.ly/1PmLcWh)

Sure, English has “crunchy”.

But Japanese uses onomatopoeia to describe the varying degrees of crunchiness!

For the most common food related onomatopoeia check out this mental floss article for some inspiration! 

8. Wait For “Itadakimasu” To Start Eating  

itadakimasu

Source: Anibee (http://bit.ly/1PmLrjW)

Children in Japan learn to say itadakimasu before every meal. It’s a way to express appreciation for the food you are eating and to show respect for those you are dining with.

Traditionally, itadakimasu is said once everyone is at the table and it’s the signal that you may start eating.

Iromegane provides a great overview of how this custom originated its importance to Japanese family culture today.

9. Not To Be Rude, But You Should Be Slurping Your Noodles!

slurp noodles japan

Source: http://bit.ly/1PmLyw6

Many cultures have very strict standards of etiquette that look down upon being loud, and especially eating audibly, at the dinner table.

You might be surprised to find in this Japan Talk article customs that may seem rude are actually perfectly acceptable, or even encouraged, in Japan.

10. Basic Chopstick Etiquette

chopstick etiquette japan

Source: http://bit.ly/1PmLZGw

You might be scared by the thought of making a fool out of yourself with poor chopstick technique in Japan!

But actually, the Japanese are often forgiving when it comes to chopstick etiquette, as Japan Talk reminds us.

However, that shouldn’t be a reason to discard simple chopstick etiquette. It can earn you brownie points for your cultural savviness and help you blend in with the locals!

11. Practice Good Chopstick Technique 

how to use chopsticks

Source: Kotaku (http://bit.ly/1PmM90C)

If you have trouble holding and using your chopsticks correctly – Kotaku has an excellent step-by-step article that will show you how to use chopsticks like a pro!

12. Nail your sushi vocabulary

You’ve had sushi before.

But you won’t be surprised to hear there’s much more to sushi in Japan than the salmon, tuna and shrimp rolls you’re used to in the West!

For example, try to identify these…

  • Sushi: Maki, Gunkan, Temaki, Nigiri, Sashimi, Chirashi
  • Ingredients: Hamachi, Nori, Tak, Tamago, Tobiko, Unagi, Wasabi, Shoyu

If you struggled, this complete guide to sushi by Take Lessons has you covered…

different kinds of sushi13. Know the Dos and Donts of Sushi

If you visit Japan and decide to sample the local sushi, you’d better be sure you’re doing it right!

Did you know you shouldn’t combine the ginger with your sushi?

Make sure you don’t commit any more sushi faux-pas, and check out this Take Lessons article for more dos and donts!

Japanese People

14.  Were You Wrong About Geisha?

what is a japanese geisha

Source: http://bit.ly/1PmNxR4

Some people have the mistaken impression that a geisha is a prostitute. In fact, this is not true.

A geisha is trained in traditional Japanese art such as dance, music, calligraphy, and poetry.

As Inside Japan details in their informative article, a geisha is often hired as a professional entertainer, which is what geisha means: “entertainer”.

Want to meet a geisha? Only in Japan can point you in the right direction.

15. Be a Better Gaijin in Japan 

gaijin in japan

Image Credit: Tofugu

If you live in Japan, there are some simple adjustments you can make to be a better ambassador for your country, and to fit more seamlessly into Japanese culture.

Are you giving the right gifts? Are you drinking “just enough”?

Take it from a gaijin who has learned from experience, and check out this Tofugu article on 10 simple ways to be a better gaijin in Japan.

16. Pay a Visit to a “Cat Island”

japanese cats

Image: 暇・カキコ (http://bit.ly/1PmABKR)

In Aoshima island, cats outnumber people by six to one.

What’s more, these so-called “Cat Islands” are becoming increasingly popular tourist destinations. So, time to revise your itinerary? 🙂

The Atlantic reveals all in this article.

Japanese Culture

16. Spend the Night in a Capsule Hotel

capsule hotels japan

Source: http://bit.ly/1PmNGE2

Japan opened its first capsule hotel in 1979 to accommodate the short stay business traveler.  It’s like going to the gym in that you get a locker to store your things and you have access to private, but shared showers.

Just as you might imagine from the name – you sleep in a private capsule.  Gizmag and Bitten by the Travel Bug both provide pictures and a concise overview of what capsule hotels in Japan are all about.

17. Friendly Toilets

japanese toilet

Source: Chris_73, Wikimedia Commons

“A gentler wash for your behind.” 

How confident are you that you’d guess the right button?

To prevent any nasty surprises, Surviving In Japan has you covered with this step-by-step guide to using Japanese Toilets.

 

18. Delve Into the World of Japanese Anime

japanese anime

Source: Danny Choo (http://bit.ly/1PmNKnb)

Japanese anime has blown up around the world.

If you’re into it, great!

Even if you’re not, learning a bit about this Japanese cultural staple might be a great way to understand youth culture a little better..

For the best articles on Japanese anime around, look no further than Danny Choo!

19. Lose Yourself in the Magical World of Ghibli

totoro japan

Image: nuvalo (http://bit.ly/1PmwUVp)

Studio Ghibli is one of Japan’s national treasures. So much so that it deserves its own section in this post!

With dozens of magical worlds to ignite your imagination, and animated characters who have captured the imagination of entire generations… there’s an endless amount to discover here.

Luckily, Mike has created his very own Ghibli Guide to tell you everything you need to know!


I hope this post has piqued your curiosity about Japanese culture, and answered a few questions at the same time!

If you’re learning Japanese, you should also check out this post: 42 Insane Japanese Language Hacks

Please take a second to share this post on social media, and then let me know your favorite aspect of Japanese culture in the comments below!

Main Image: Kaybee (http://bit.ly/1PmRftZ)

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  • Kyle Balmer

    Great article! I must admit I’m especially guilty of #5 tsundoku…

  • Andreas Lingue

    Thank you Ollie for your hard work and passion, it’s very contagious!!!
    Keep moving forward, you are doing a great job.

  • Andreas Lingue

    Thank you Ollie for your hard work and passion, it’s very contagious!!!
    Keep moving forward, you are doing a great job.

    • Thanks for the comment Andreas… I really appreciate it!

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