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Weird Japanese traditions and customs

Weirdness is in the eyes of the beholder. What’s normal in one country can easily be weird in another. Japan has its shares of customs, traditions and conventions that are considered as ‘weird’ by many foreign travellers.

No matter how well prepared you are, you will still be baffled. Reading about Japanese people and customs is different from actually seeing them in action. We hope the list below will help soften the impact.

It’s good to remember that so called weird Japanese customs and traditions are far from dangerous. So relax and enjoy funky cultural differences. This list is in no particular order – they are equally wacky. Lets have a look at 30 weird Japanese customs 😉

No. 30 Blowing nose is considered as disgusting

Japanese usually sniffle until they find somewhere private to blow their nose (which many foreigners find disgusting). Blowing nose with a handkerchief is equally repulsive to Japanese – use tissue and do so discretely if you must blow your nose in public.

No. 29 Wearing a surgical mask in public

You’ll see many Japanese wearing what seems like a white surgical mask in public. They are either protecting themselves against germs or trying to block their own germs if they are sick.

No. 28 Keeping one side of the escalator open

Japanese stand on the left hand side of the escalator and keep the other side open for those who want to walk up. They get extremely frustrated at you if you stand on the right hand side and block others.

In Kansai Region, however, it’s the opposite.

No. 27 Eating and drinking in front of a convenience store

Hanging out at convenience stores is considered as juvenile and delinquent. Yes, Japanese convenience stores sell drinks, alcohol and yummy food, but passersby might frown upon if you are seen hanging out drinking and eating there.

No. 26 Epic gift giving

There are two major gift exchange seasons, Oseibo (summer greetings) and Ochugen (end of the year greetings). In addition, Japanese almost always bring a gift when they visit a friend. When you are visiting a friend in Japan, it won’t hurt to bring a small gift. The more elaborate the gift wrap the better.

When you are receiving a gift, try refusing it and graciously accept it later. Normally Japanese people do not open gifts in front of the gift sender, but you get away with it if you are non-Japanese.

No. 25 Wearing toilet slippers

Japan is a land of slipper lovers. When you visit your friends, they will offer you a pair of slippers to enter their house. Then you’ll find another pair of slippers in the toilet and you must change into them.

Make sure you change your slippers back – wearing toilet slippers inside the living room is a sinful act.

No. 24 Tipping is considered rude

In Japan, workers at restaurants, hotels and entertainment venues will simply refuse to take any tips. Worse yet, they often consider tipping rude. One of few places tipping is graciously accepted is at mid to high end ryokan. Normally, you will have your own ‘nakai-san’ or a female clerk designated to your room, and it’s considered as cool to tip them, anywhere between 1,000 yen to 3,000 yen.

Otherwise, don’t tip.

No. 23 Sleeping on the train

During your trip, you are bound to witness the art of sleeping – on the train. Many salary men and women commute by train and some live far way from their workplace, like two or even three hours each way. Being able to sleep on the train is the necessity, not so many of an accident in Japan.

No. 22 Loving love hotels – 2 hours or all nighter

Many Japanese live with their parents until they get married. So, this has resulted in the burgeoning business of love hotels. You will find them everywhere in major cities, and they are often equipped with fun goods and interiors inside, such as an revolving bed, swing, karaoke, adult-toy vending machines, a mini pool and so on. This must be perceived as one of the most weird Japanese traditions and customs

Entrances of love hotels are often very discreet. As you walk inside and there is a small reception with a panel of rooms to choose from. Press one, pay money and a key will be handed out from inside the reception. You won’t see or be seen by anyone during the whole process of staying at a love hotel.

No. 21 Noodle slurping

Slurping noodles is considered as a good manner and a sign of appreciation. You don’t have to do it, but you can’t stop Japanese people from doing that either by just frowning at them. Even the most beautiful Japanese woman you’ve ever seen will slurp.

No. 20 No sound on the train

Japanese people are expected to put their smartphone into the ‘manner mode’ (no ring tone and vibration only) and not to talk on the phone on the train. Talking loudly on the train itself is often considered as rude. It is indeed really weird to ride a fully packed train and hear no sound or whatsoever.

But once you are used to it, you could be glaring at loud talkers on the train back home.

No. 19 Unbelievably high quality convenience stores

Japan is not the only country that has convenience stores every 50 meters (Thailand for one). But the quality of products sold at convenience stores in Japan is just mindboggling. Try any convenience store near your accommodation and you’ll come out with a burning desire for Japanese convenience stores to open in your own country.

They offer a wide range of products, including seasonal food such as oden and nikuman. Major convenience stores produce their own cosmetic products as well as collaboration products with major cosmetic companies (Read the 4th best place to buy cosmetics). If you are a MUJI fan, go to Family Mart and they have a good range of MUJI products available 24/7. If you are a FANCL fan, go to Seven Eleven and try the Botanic Force produced by them in collaboration.

No. 18 Extremely polite traffic controllers

In Japan there are usually a few traffic controllers at construction sites, road works and entrances of car parks. They take their jobs very seriously and bow to you like there is no tomorrow.

No. 17 Maid service

Have you ever wanted to be treated like a master by a maid? Then, visit maid cafes where young women dress up in maid costumes, act like your servant and treat you as their masters (Danna-sama). Some maid related businesses are considered as weird even by Japanese people, such as ear wax cleaning and soine service where a maid woman just lies down next to you and keep you company for a specified time.

Maid cafes are also popping up overseas including Thailand, France and Australia. Head to Akihabara if you so wish to experience the original.

No. 16 Security assistants on the platform in the morning

In the morning, train stations in major cities, particularly Tokyo, become a battlefield. Try taking a train in the morning and when you just confirm that it’s impossible to get in, an assistant will come and push you in. Railway companies hire extra security assistants to help hundreds of thousands of passengers trying to get in on the train in the morning.

Don’t resist. These guys are well trained and know what they are doing – just let them work the magic.

No. 15 Free packets of tissue

If you explore a major city by walking around, it’s inevitable to end up with tens of packets of tissue in your bag. In Japan, companies often hire people to hand out free tissue as advertisements on the streets, and it’s not impolite to say “No, thank you” once you have picked up enough tissue for a year.

No. 14 Going naked in hot springs and public bathhouses – Japanese social conventions

In other countries, you can go into hot springs with a swimsuits on. Not in Japan. You are expected to follow Japanese traditions by going full monty and observing a set of rules. Basic rules are:

1. Take off ALL your clothes before going inside an onsen room.
2. Wash yourself thoroughly first, ideally with a wash towel, before entering the water.
3. Enter the water quietly (never hump in) and NEVER take the wash towel inside the water with you (except that you have it on the top of your head, not touching the water).

No. 13 Super complex toilets

You might find going to public toilets in Japan slightly daunting. Toilets at hotels, shopping centers, restaurants and shops can be quite complex, with high tech toilet sheet and bidet called “Washlet”. Sometimes you won’t find a good-old lever to flush toilet and you instead need to just wave against a black spot on the wall.

Hygienic as it may be, it could be slightly confusing. There are just so many functions and buttons and you have no idea which one does what.

Then there is the otohime (Lit. “Sound Princess”) – the sound system that comes on to erase the sound of your business. It sometimes comes on automatically as you sit on the sheet, and you are like “what the hell!?”

Still, once you are used to Japanese toilets with washlets, there is no going back. Many Japanese also carry a portable washlet bidet just in case they can’t find a public toilet with the washlet. It’s that addictive.

No. 12 All you can eat buffet and all you can drink deal

When it comes to eating and drinking, Japanese people are quite health conscious. Have you seen many fat Japanese? Not really. And yet, many restaurants and hotels offer tabehodai (Lit. “All you can eat”) and nomihodai (Lit. “All you can drink). You might find the concept of all you can drink for a fixed price and time hard to comprehend, but anywhere from 3,000 yen, you can drink as much sake, beer, shochu and more as you can for 90 or 120 mins in Japan.

Read on about 5 best all you can eat restaurants here, or if you are a sushi fan, have a look at the list of 5 best sushi tabehodai restaurants in Tokyo here.

No. 11 Japanese drug stores

Japanese drug stores are nothing like those in other countries. They are more like, hm, a theme park with millions of drugs, beauty cosmetics, accessories, clothes, bath products, health & diet food, energy drinks, sanitary goods and more.

Major chain drug stores include: Matsumoto Kiyoshi, Seijo Kokokara Fine, Tsuruha and Sugi Drug Store. There you will never run out of Japanese products to buy there. Btw, many of them in major cities are duty-free, so take your passport with you when shopping at drug stores.

No. 10 Best food in the basement at department stores

It might sound a bit weird, but the best food can be found underground in Japan. If you are after exclusive Japanese food and drinks, you got to go under and visit what they call “Depachika” or basements of department stores. High end department stores with great depachika include Mitsukoshi, Takashimaya and Isetan. Shinjuku Isetan’s depachika is particularly impressive.

No. 9 Slurping at stand-up noodle shops

You might think it’s a bit weird, but you will often see Japanese people standing and eating noodles at noodle shops. They tend to be located near train stations and they are super convenient and economical places to eat for people in a hurry; it takes no time before you get your food at stand up noodle shops and they are super cheap.

Don’t be shy and mingle with local Japanese while eating noodles and standing up. Find out more about stand-up noodle shop here.

No. 8 Body language -Japanese social conventions – come here and go away

When you are not able to understand the Japanese language, body language gains more importance. In Japan, though, meanings of certain body language you are used to may not be the same. For instance, when Japanese people ask you to come, they will put out their hand, palm-down, and pulls the fingers towards you, which is often understood as “Go away” in the West. It is very handy to learn all the Japanese social customs and conventions.

No. 7 Streets with no names

If you are coming from western countries, you might find it a bit weird, and even confusing and frustrating, that many streets in Japan have no name. Major roads are named, but small streets are just nameless. This makes it excruciatingly difficult to ask for a direction even for Japanese people.

Make sure you download Google Maps on your smartphone before arriving in Japan. If you are lost, though, one of the best places to seek help is police station, or what Japanese endearingly call “Koban”. Police officers consider it part of their service to help you find your way.

No. 6 Being shouted at restaurants – “Irasshai mase!!!!”

It is a century-old convention for workers at restaurants to shout “Irasshai mase!” to welcome customers. Oftentimes they don’t smile and just shout, but they are really trying to welcome you.

Be ready for the other shout “Arigato gozaimashita!!!!” as you exit restaurants.

No. 5 Flushing a “V” sign when taking photos

Japanese weird body gesture when taking pictures has become world famous. But does it really happen for real? Yes, and be ready for it. Giving a v sign also makes you feel like you’ve become Japanese. Try it. The weird thing is it becomes no longer so weird.

No. 4 Epic bowing

You’ve seen Japanese people bowing crazy in movies and on TV. Yes, it does happen, for real in everyday life in Japan. This is another of Japanese social conventions you might want to know about. Go with the flow and bow as you see fit. No need to feel competitive and bow forever.

One mistake foreign visitors tend to make is to bow with hands put together in front of their chest. That hand gesture is more of a Thai custom. Japanese instead have hands down straight or on their sides.

No. 3 Holding doors open for others is unnecessary

In many western countries, holding the door open for others is a common practice. But not in Japan. No one expects you to hold the door for them, and no one will do it for you. They will be surprised, if not apologetic, if you do.

Holding doors open is not practical in a big city like Tokyo. Hundreds of people are trying to walk past doors anytime of the day. So you will find holding the door open forever without anyone offering to take over from you. You don’t even have to open the tax door – they open and close automatically.

No. 2 Eating and drinking and not knowing the price

At some restaurants in Japan, they don’t show prices. Many high end sushi restaurants just say “Seasonal price”. It’s nerve-wracking to eat at a such restaurant, but it’s an old tradition not to present the price so as not to worry the guest of their customers. In Japan, settai or entertaining one’s (potential) customers to gain business favor is a common place. If your customers know how much they are eating, they might feel hesitant. That’s why good restaurants, particularly sushi restaurants, don’t show the price or even menu.

If you happen to walk into such a sushi restaurant by mistake, you can either walk out or tell them “can you make sushi up to xxxx yen?” Sushi restaurants without prices often offer sushi of amazing quality.

No. 1 Yuru-Chara mascots

Expect to meet a number of yuru-chara mascots during your visit to Japan. Yuru-chara means ‘loosely made characters’ and Japan is obsessed with kawaii yuru-chara mascots. Almost all prefectures in Japan have a yuru-chara mascot and many shopping centers, companies, schools and even government offices have their own, too. National favorites are Funasshi and Kumamon. There are numerous yuru-chara competitions throughout the year.

Enjoy meeting yuru-chara and it’s perfectly not weird to take a photo with them with a ‘v’ sign.