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16 Culture Shocks Every American Will Experience in Japan

by C-M "Spike" Daeley Sep 22, 2015

1. Unquestioned conformity

Americans have the saying, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” (Stand out and you’ll get what you want.) Japan’s response is, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” (Stand out and get put in your place!)

2. Obscene Prices

$1000 (USD) for a freakin watermelon?!! I don’t care if it’s shaped like a triangle!!

3. Everyone is soooo polite!

Two of the most common phrases you’ll hear in Japanese are “sumimasen” and “gomenasai.” They mean, “excuse me” and “I’m sorry,” respectively and can often be used interchangeably.

4. Getting jouzu’d

Wait! Did you just say a word in Japanese? Nihongo ga jouzu desu ne! (Your Japanese is so good!) Holy smokes! You just picked up a single noodle with chopsticks! Ohashi wa jouzu!(You’re great with chopsticks!) *Given standing ovation and award for International Exchange*

5. Christmas chicken and Christmas cake

If you ever have the chance to be in Japan on Christmas, you’ll see astronomical lines at KFCs (thanks to an extremely successful ad campaign that began in the 70’s). You’ll also see an assortment of kurisumasu keki (Christmas cakes) on display at department stores, bakeries and even convenience stores. When asked why so many Japanese celebrate with this type of fare, the response is usually, “Don’t you?”

6. Nomihoudai (all you can drink)

If American bars or restaurants did this, they’d be signing their own death warrants. You just booked tickets to Tokyo, didn’t you? It’s ok, I won’t tell.

7. Drinking in public

This is definitely one thing that puts Japan and a lot of other Asian countries above the West. Drinking in bars is too damned expensive, why not just grab a konbini beer and drink at the park, or on the train, or on your way to a cheap izakaya (Japanese pub)?

8. Kids as young as 5 traveling to school by themselves

In a world…where children ride public transportation without a chaperone in sight, all while wearing backpacks twice their size… *Cue screams*

If the idea of really young kids running around cities unsupervised terrifies you, here’s a short documentary that explains why Japanese society encourages this kind of independence from a young age.

9. Getting coughed and sneezed on

Taking sick days is a pretty rare occurrence (as is the beloved American “personal day”) so most Japanese workers just slap on a surgical mask and call it good. The downside of this (aside from the spookiness factor) is that most folks think this means they no longer have to cover their mouths when they cough. ☹

10. Workicide

My friend, Stu in Tokyo made international headlines a few months back by recording his insane 70-80 hour workweeks. And he’s one of the lucky folks who only has to do it SOME of the time. While we have the word, “workaholic” in English, Japan takes it to the extreme with “karōshi,” which literally translates as “death from overwork.”

11. Being overtly stared at

Some folks never got the memo about the whole “staring is impolite” thing and it’s definitely unsettling when someone’s unblinking gaze is fixed on you for minutes at a time. I like to make it a game by waving or acting like they’ve caught me in a tractor beam.

12. Kawaii culture

The Japanese obsession with kawaii (pronounced: ka why eee, cute) is a wonderful puzzle to behold. Kawaii is generally the highest compliment you can give for anything and everything ranging from someone’s toy poodle to their full-size, adult Pikachu onesie.

13. Janken Pon (Rock-Paper-Scissors) solves EVERYTHING

In February of 2014, when 3 inches of snow brought Tokyo’s entire infrastructure to a grinding halt, I was stuck a mere six stops from my destination on the Tozai line. Stricken by the lack of open seats, I noticed someone had abandoned theirs. When he came back 15 minutes later and was noticeably unimpressed with my impromptu English lesson in “Move Your Feet, Lose Your Seat,” I challenged him to janken pon and won. He unquestioningly shook my hand and walked away.

14. Punctuality

In Japan, if you’re on time, you’re actually late. Your co-workers have already been there for at least a half an hour.

15. Excessive packaging

“Oh you’d like to buy this souvenir? First I’ll put it in a box and wrap the box in decorative paper. Now let’s put it in a plastic bag. Ok, let’s put the plastic bag in another, larger plastic bag. Now, let’s put it in a paper bag and tape it closed. Finally, we’ll put it all in this giant plastic bag! Have a nice day!”

16. Wet hands

Unlike most other industrialized nations, Japan’s public restrooms almost never have paper towels or hand dryers, so most people still carry handkerchiefs. Also, odds of soap are about 50-50.

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