Being polite in Japan

Good morning everyone,

The nice weather is sticking around till Tuesday-we can expect daytime highs between 13C and 15C and mostly sunny weather to last until then. Tuesday and Wednesday are looking grey with a chance of rain...but at least you won't be in Hawai'i, right? Didn't you hear? They got snow in Hawaii the other day...

There are some things we take for granted being raised in our own culture, and knowing how to be polite is one of them. But what may be considered polite in one country could be rude in another, or the other way around, and Japan is no exception.

That’s why today we’re counting down the top five strangest ways to be polite in Japan. Some of these took me a long time to get used to, so much so that I still have a hard time pulling them off. But maybe with enough perseverance, perhaps together we can all finally not be the rude foreigners we’d like to avoid being.

So let’s get to it! Starting off with…

Honorable Mention: Making lots of sounds

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I don’t know about you, but ever since I was a kid I was told that making sounds while eating was basically the worst thing you could do while having a meal with others, short of throwing your dishes at your host.

And yet in Japan, when you go to a ramen restaurant, what sound fills the air? Slurping. Making saliva-saturated sucking sounds is perfectly a-okay in Japan, in fact it’s a sign that you’re enjoying the dish. For some it can be sickening, while for others it can be the sound of freedom ringing in their ears, a sign that they can finally enjoy their noodles the way they always wanted to, but were too afraid to try.

And the reversed-politeness sounds don’t end there: sniffling is another big one. While blowing your nose in public is seen as pretty inconsiderate to others in Japan, spending your whole day sniffing and sniveling is seen as perfectly acceptable.

The reason these are only an honorable mention is because they aren’t so much “things you do to be polite” but rather “things you can do and people won’t think you’re rude.” So feel free to show off how much you love those hot noodles by slurping them up, and if you’re a fan of the sound of snorting up snot, then by all means let loose!

#5. Making no sounds

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On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are some sounds that Japan is very finicky about, particularly when it comes to public transportation. Anyone who has been to Japan before has experienced the near-silent trains, sometimes filled with hundreds of people not making a sound.

Japanese people are as a whole quite sensitive to the feelings of others, valuing how other people feel just as much – if not more – than themselves. So disturbing others by making unnecessary noises (i.e.: chatting loudly, talking on cellphones, having music play out of headphones that others can hear) is borderline unthinkable. Which makes train-parties much less common in Japan...

Now you might ask, “What about slurping/sniffing? Don’t those count as annoying noises to other people?” The answer is: those aren’t considered unnecessary noises. Slurping? Necessary to eat hot noodles. Sniffling? Necessary to not drip snot. But talking on your cellphone on a train/bus? Not necessary – just wait until you get off.

#4. Elevator etiquette

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Using the elevator politely is as much a part of Japanese common sense as bowing and slurping.

The biggest difference is the usage of buttons. If you’re with a group of coworkers or guests, it’s considered polite to press and hold the “door open” button until everyone else is inside/outside the elevator, then let yourself in/out last. Even if you’re not with guests, if you’re next to the buttons it’s usually polite to hold the “door open” button until everyone is inside, then press the “door close” afterward to make the whole process as speedy as possible. 

Using the 'open' and 'close' buttons on elevators in Japan is just as important for being polite as…

#3. Not pouring your own drink

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Unless you want to be thought of as a rude barbarian, then be careful not to pour your own drinks when you’re out eating with friends and coworkers. In Japan, pouring your own drink is basically the selfish equivalent of eating off other people’s plates.

“But wait,” you might say, “what do I do if I want a drink and my glass is empty? Just die of thirst?”

No need to shrivel up, friend! Just grab the water/soda/alcohol container and fill up some other people’s glasses that are getting a little low. Chances are they’ll reciprocate and fill yours up right away.

Typically the designated “drink pourer” is the lowest-ranked person at the table, but it usually only starts out that way. If the beverage being poured is of the alcoholic variety, then as the night goes on and the upper-ranked members get a little warm and bubbly, they’ll start pouring drinks for anyone whose glasses gets down a millimetre or two.

Personally, I struggle with the drink-pouring politeness. If Japan can understand that slurping noodles is “necessary,” and sniffling is “necessary,” then why can’t filling my own glass when I’m thirsty be “necessary” too? It can be a bit over-the-top, but it’s not nearly as stressful as…

#2. Omiyage

Ohhhhhmiyage. Everyone’s favorite – and least favorite – Japanese tradition.

For those unaware, omiyage are gifts that you bring back to your friends, family, and coworkers after you go visit someplace on a trip. If you go to Hawaii, you bring back some macadamia nuts. If you go to Hokkaido, you bring back Shiroi Koibito chocolate. And if you go to Tokyo, you best be bringing back some sweet Tokyo Banana.

Now that might not sound so bad… as long as you’re on the receiving end of the omiyage. When you’re on the giving end, it can be a nightmare. Some offices are pretty lenient when it comes to omiyage, but others have an expectation that whenever somebody goes on vacation, or even a business trip, they’ll be bringing back goodies for the entire office.

Getting all of that omiyage is not only time-consuming and cumbersome, sometimes requiring you to plan in advance to bring an empty bag just to pack it all back in, but it can be expensive. Omiyage alone can add an additional 10 to 20-percent to the cost of a vacation, and many Japanese people cite omiyage as stressing them out so much while on vacation that they can’t even enjoy being away.

But alas, such is the cost of being polite!

▼ My recommendation: if you go to Okinawa, don’t bring back sweet potato tarts
and pineapple pies, bring bitter goya. No one will ever want your omiyage again!

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And the #1 strangest ways to be polite in Japan is…

1. Saying “sorry” instead of “thank you”

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Maybe this one isn’t so strange to other people, but the first few times I encountered it, it blew my mind.

A lot of the time in Japan, when you want to thank someone, you don’t use the word for “thank you” (arigatou, arigatou gozaimasu, etc), but instead you use the word for “sorry/excuse me” (sumimasen).

At first that might make sense. After all, even in English we have expressions like “oh you shouldn’t have!” when we’re given a present. But now imagine if you said that in a lot of other situations, like when somebody holds the door open for you, or when somebody takes away your trash for you, or when somebody picks you up at a station.

Saying “oh you shouldn’t have” or “I’m sorry” in those situations in English would just seem awkward, but in Japanese it’s perfectly natural. Basically anytime someone does a favor for you, or even often when they give you a gift, saying “I’m sorry” is completely normal.

So there you have it, the top five strangest ways to be polite in Japan. Ok...so maybe they aren't necessarily 'strange', but they are pretty different from back home.

Have a great day!


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