10 “Rude” Behaviours That Are Perfectly OK in Japan 11

To nurture internal peace and stability of the country, Japan endured over 200 years of the Tokugawa Shogunate period during which social progress was completely frozen. Today, Japan has a surplus economy and is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world. However, having closed its doors to the rest of the world for so long has rendered Japan to be socially conservative from Western points of view. Hence it should not come as a surprise when we tell you of Japanese etiquettes that might be frowned upon in the West. 

Slurping your food

Invented over 2000 years ago, noodles were quickly adopted by Japanese as a staple food item. Over the years, noodles have been adapted to accommodate all tastes and food preferences and are served fresh off the stove with piping hot broth to be eaten immediately.

Most people from the West would find it irritating if sounds escaped while eating, however Japanese are known to slurp their noodles. They almost expect their guests to indulge in this Misophonia triggering way of eating.

Slurping noodles is popular because food is served hot and slurping allows a convection current which cools the noodles so the devourers’ mouth does not burn. Slurping is more common amongst older people and also indicates that people are enjoying their food. As such, it is a sign of respect to your host as well.

Slurping your food
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On personal space

Since Japan is such a progressive, advanced country, most citizens belong to the working class. The rush hour peaks every day at 8 A.M. and 5-6 P.M. Japanese heavily rely on public transport, especially trains. Therefore, it is not surprising that train stations are overly crowded during the rush hours. People in the West often get offended if someone so much as breathes too close and are very particular about maintaining at least an arm’s length distance at all times.

The Japanese do not have a strong concept of personal space nor do they mind standing for a long time. They wait in a respectful queue no matter how crowded the station is and wait patiently for the passengers to disembark before stepping in. There is no concept of waiting for the second train so personal space may be compromised.

On personal space
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Deflect all compliments

Normally, compliments are meant to be accepted graciously. If not, it is considered to be very rude. However, the Japanese culture teaches them to deflect compliments.

Even though Japanese do expect you to compliment them as it adds face to their personality, they do not accept it straightaway. They pretend to be shy or not hear you and then finally negate the compliment. For example, if you were to appreciate someone’s cooking, the most probable response would be, “Oh, no, no this? Ah, this is nothing at all”.

Japanese do this because they think it is rude to accept compliments overtly and it makes a person narcissistic. If you are in Japan, a social cue such as saying ‘thank you’ upon receiving a compliment might just get you labelled as conceited.

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You cannot just say ‘Yes’

In the West, if you want to invite someone, you can do so over a message or call and everyone confirms according to their availability.  

However, the Japanese are very formal in their ways. They expect a formal invite, and in order to not burden their hosts, when an invitation is extended to them, their first response is hesitance. It is only upon insistence from their hosts that they accept the invitation.

It is also the norm to call the host prior to arrival so they are not taken by surprise. The extent of courtesy in Japanese culture makes them very different from the West’s informal ways. You are also expected to arrive at least ten minutes prior to the given time otherwise it is counted as a late arrival, hence disrespectful.

cannot just say ‘Yes’
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No eye contact

A basic etiquette of holding conversation is maintaining eye contact. This is also observed during presentations, speeches and debates as it ensures confidence and honesty and shows that the listener is engaged in the conversation.

In Japan, however, it is rude to maintain eye contact. People are expected to look away after an initial look; glances are allowed intermittently. If a person looks at the other too much, it comes off as staring and is frowned upon in Japanese etiquette especially by the older generation.

Japanese will only meet your eye if you are a close friend or some serious business conversation is undergoing. As such, if you are talking to someone and they avert their eyes or start looking down, it is a sign they are uncomfortable with continuous eye contact.

No eye contact
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A new way of greeting

Whether it be a business meeting, graduation, meeting family or hanging out with friends, handshakes suffice, at most you go for a hug. Refusing a handshake is poor social cue in the West.

In Japan, however, social cues are different. If you were to extend your hand forward it would be met with blank stares and confusion because the Japanese style of greeting is bowing; doubling over in respect.  Bowing relays communication. If you met someone on the road, you are expected to make a curt bow, bent to a few degrees. If you met a business associate, a deeper bow of 30 degreesis expected. To express deep gratitude or sorrow, you would be met with a bow of 45 degrees or more.

Bowing down also signifies you placing someone over yourself and expresses gratitude of the interaction.

way of greeting
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Honesty is NOT the best policy

While most of us appreciate a straightforward, honest response, Japanese are more liable to beat about the bush before answering, and even then, their responses are vague.

If your Japanese associate dislikes your proposal, they would not say so overtly; they would change the subject, excuse themselves or just divert the attention from the point in discussion. Japanese prefer giving their opinions in a way that does not straight up mean ‘no’. They would approach the matter in a more roundabout manner like asking more details or simply ignoring the topic.

Observing their body language is the best way to get your answer. If their eyes avert, expressions change or they appear shifty, you should realize their disinterest in the conversation. To be safe, ask courteous questions and learn to read their replies in between.

Bearer of bad news

No one likes being the bearer of bad news, especially not the Japanese. A meaningless laugh usually accompanies unpleasant news. Laughing in serious situations is extremely rude in most cultures especially in the West where deaths and accidents are somber affairs. In Japan, laughter is like an ice-breaker and shows cooperation too. Laughter also affirms that you are part of the same group or are at least trying to be a part of it.

There are three general types of laughter identified in the Japanese culture.

A deep, hearty laugh identifies you to be part of the group and indicates joy. The second type of laughter is an almost fake sounding one that is used as a balance to ease tension. The third type is a nervous laughter that is used to coverup social or lingual slipups.

Bearer of bad news
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Ships that pass on in the night

If you were walking down the lane with a friend and crossed paths with an acquaintance, out of politeness, you would introduce your friend too.

If you encounter their acquaintance whilst with the Japanese, do not be offended if they seem to have forgotten to make introductions. They do this deliberately because to the other person you are just a ship that passes on. Getting into the cumbersome hassle of making introductions would be pointless considering you will never meet the person again.

It is considered to be very assertive and pointless making introductions to people you will likely not meet again.

Ships that pass on in the night
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Not all for one

If you were with someone who does not understand your native language, you would not converse in it out of respect of your comrade.

The Japanese on the other hand do not find any wrong in identifying their cultural sub-groups via language. If you were with your Japanese friend and another Japanese person came along, they would not hesitate in striking a conversation in Japanese. The language itself is not unified across the country and Japanese also use it to initiate territorial recognition. No matter how hard you try to assimilate the culture, you will always remain a foreigner in Japan. Hence your friends will only introduce you when you are a significant contributor in their life like a boss or partner.

all for one
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Though Japan is a very hospitable country, the concept of coming off as rude is unknown to the Japanese. In maintaining their own etiquettes, they often ignore those of other cultures. Visiting for the first time might be a cultural shock but you will eventually learn to enjoy the beautiful country.