Easy to remember & good to know information about Japanese Culture if you are visiting for the first time (or need a refresher!)
Last Updated April 8th, 2020
Japanese culture is known around the world as a fascinating, unique and deeply historic culture. Tokyo, Japan’s capital city, is where tradition meets innovation. You can be standing next to a thousand year old temple with a modern day skyscraper in front of you. With the 2020 Olympics just around the corner, Japanese culture and traditions are being highlighted for the world to see. Yet, it was only a few hundred years ago that the country was isolated from the rest of the world. This allowed the famous culture in Japan to become such a fascinating lifestyle to learn about and experience.
I have only spent a few days in Tokyo, Japan (it was also my first time in Asia) and continue to cherish the beautiful and serene lifestyle. If you are visiting Tokyo, Japan, here are things to know about Tokyo culture to help you feel at home and be prepared for your travels there:
[Traveling to Tokyo for the first time? Check out my First Timers Guide to Tokyo, Japan]
Basics of Japanese Culture
Japanese Food Culture
1) Japanese food is created with pride and excitement
The Japanese take great pride and excitement in the food they prepare, with many things being made with the craftsmanship that modern day ‘hipsters’ seemingly adore (however, if we’re being honest, the Western view of local & craftsmanship has shifted away from the typically adored mass production of food in the last few years- maybe the Japanese are onto something…)
2) The Japanese diet consists mainly of rice, fresh seafood and pickled vegetables
This healthy diet is considered to be one of the reasons the Japanese live such long lives.
3) Japanese food is so much more than sushi
Sushi has become a Westernized speciality for celebratory nights out or a self indulgent treat. It is also the food that Japan has become most well known for. However, Japanese diets go beyond sushi. While fresh seafood is a huge part of their typical diet, vegetarians (like myself) can find plenty of tofu, buckwheat noodles and seasonal vegetables to enjoy.
4) Chopsticks are the equivalent to a fork and knife.
And just like we have etiquette with utensils in the United States, there is etiquette for using chopsticks.
Never point with your chopsticks
Don’t place your chopsticks in a bowl of rice or pass food around with them
5) Soy sauce should be used lightly
The Japanese cook with pride & dousing your rice in soy sauce translates to the chef and restaurant owner that you were served poorly made food
6) No need to tip
The Japanese are extremely kind (more on this below) and will provide excellent service regardless, so there is no cultural norm to tip. In fact, most will try to awkwardly give you back your tip if you leave one
7) Don’t pour your own drinks
Your host/ess or friend should make sure your glass is always full, and you should do the same for them- Kanpai! (cheers)
8) Vending machines are everywhere and are filled with unique beverages
Drinks on the go is a lifestyle here, however the use of plastic doesn’t make this a sustainable tactic
9) Speaking of drinks, tea is the drink of choice in Japan
Most restaurants will supply you with hot green tea, just like you would receive a glass of water in western culture. And there are many delicious teas to try besides green tea.
Japanese People & Mannerisms
10) Japanese people are very friendly and kind. They will notice if you are a visitor and are helpful if you become lost or confused. You will be in awe with how polite, well mannered and quiet the Japanese are.
Some say that this mentality stems from the strong history of the samurai (discipline, respect honor), which transcended through time to modern society
11) PDA is a no-no
It’s improper to show public displays of affection
12) Instead of pointing with your finger, show with your hand, palm facing up
13) Greet with a bow
A bow is the equivalent to a handshake. You don’t need to bow to everyone who bows to you (otherwise you would bow to every restaurant employee you come across and spend your entire day bent over), you can instead do a polite head nod. However, many Japanese are becoming accustomed to shaking hands
Bows are silent ways of saying thank you, greeting or saying farewell and for apologizing
Overall Japanese Culture
14) Public spaces are quite quiet. You won’t see many loud or rambunctious Japanese in public spaces, however the nightlife can be a completely different story
15) Overall, the city of Tokyo is very safe.
We never felt uncomfortable or that there were pickpockets
16) Try not to stare
I’m not sure if it’s the sales person in me, but I found myself giving direct eye contact to way too many people when visiting Japan. I noticed I was doing it because they do not do the same. I came to find out that this a cultural norm.
17) The maps for public transportation can be quite confusing to a visitor. Don’t let it frighten you, because if you look lost someone will most likely stop to help you. At one point during our trip, a gentleman stopped on his way to work to help walk us outside of the metro station and take us to the correct station (did I mention the Japanese are some of the kindest people?)
Great piece of advice: don’t just stop inside of a train station if you are lost or confused. Move to the side, out of the way, as there are so many people filtering through them
I put together an awesome guide for how to use Tokyo’s Public Transportation here!
18) The city of Tokyo is spotlessly clean
There aren’t many public trash cans, yet the streets are all immaculate (I once saw a man shining a fire hydrant… that’s cleanliness level that Monica Gellar would be proud of). This means that the cities cleanliness is partly self maintained by its people. Respect the country and its people by not littering.
Interesting Cultural facts about Japan
19) There’s a difference between a shrine and temple
A shrine is for the Shinto religion, whereas a temple is for the Buddhist religion. You can tell the difference upon your entrance as a shrine will have water for those entering to wash their hands and mouth in order to cleanse the soul before entering, and a temple will most likely require shoes to be removed prior to entering.
20) You will see evidence of the country’s religious heritage everywhere you look. The Japanese are very proud of it, although for each person religion is typically a private affair
21) In fact, many Japanese gardens are based on Buddhism, but the two religions mutually exist together
As with any country there are different cultural segments among the people – for Japan it would be Shinto, Buddhism, Ryukyukan and Ainu – yet the overall sense of respect and honor transcend throughout its entirety. Japan is a country where traditions that go back for thousands of years are respected, and fast paced evolution with fashion trends, architecture and technology are sought after simultaneously. There is debate among which stands to support Japan moving forward – the traditions or advancements – but that’s a discussion for another time, maybe one we can have during or after the 2020 Olympic games in Tokyo.
[If you’re planning a trip to Japan, then don’t miss this Weekend Itinerary for Tokyo, Japan. No trip to Japan is complete without experiencing this incredible city]
Things Japan is known for:
-iekbana (flower arranging)
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