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5 Things Americans Could Learn From the Japanese About Behaving in Public

Japan Culture
by Turner Wright Oct 16, 2017

When people ask me why I keep coming back to Japan, the answer is usually the same: safety and comfort. Violent crime is rare, as is petty theft. In terms of comfort, despite the overzealous work culture, there are numerous ways to relax in the country. Aside from that, the little things also add up: trains that always run on time, the ego boost from being above average height, and the lack of noise on public transportation. When I was in San Francisco, it seemed like I heard a crazy guy yelling at me on MUNI every other day, or had someone who felt BART was the ideal place to practice his dance routine.

Such behavior would be almost unheard of on any kind of bus or train in Japan, and it’s not the only difference.

1. Litter

It’s not as though Japan is completely garbage free, with the streets of Tokyo clean enough to eat off of… but it’s awfully close. Ironically, a lack of public trash cans –- removed after the sarin attacks in the 90s — and the cultural norm of not eating and walking, have led to less litter, and more consideration when it comes to disposing of waste at a convenience store or train station. In the countryside, there are even mini torii (shrines) set up to shame others into not dumping their garbage… and it works.

2. Silence

Maybe this is a personal preference, but I always appreciate the quiet over hundreds of conversations blended together. Unlike Beijing and many cities in Asia, the streets of Tokyo aren’t filled to the brim with the sounds of car horns blaring. On trains throughout the country, talking on cell phones is banned, and even speaking with a friend is generally done quietly. Asking someone in the states to keep it down may result in a violent confrontation, even when the request is justified; for example, on an airplane, in the quiet Amtrak car, or playing music on the bus.

3. Drinking

Open container laws prevent most people in the US from drinking in public except during special events or venues, but no such laws exist in Japan. While this does lead to plenty of salarymen stumbling through the streets late at night, there aren’t nearly as many cases of drunken escapades –- fights, catcalling, insults — as we see in New York, and the police in Japan know better than to arrest someone just trying to catch the last train home.

4. Waiting

When you live in a country with some of the most crowded cities on the planet, you learn how to respect boundaries. We’ve all seen the viral videos of “pushers” forcing people into the trains in Tokyo during the morning commute and probably appreciated our less crowded US trains, but have you considered just how amazing it is most people don’t get upset at being trapped in a metal box with no room to even wiggle for up to an hour? There aren’t any screams of “this is BS!” or “my tax dollars paid for this!”, just people willing to accept their situation with dignity.

5. Keeping up appearances

I’m probably just asking for trouble with this one, but it’s definitely something I notice when I’m back in the states. Adults in Japan are rarely caught out in public without properly preparing themselves to be seen by the world; in other words, meticulously dressed and clean. It’s not as though you won’t see someone making a late night run to the convenience store in their underwear, but to spot a sloppy person anywhere in Japan is akin to seeing a dodo. Sweatpants, women without makeup, unshaven men (even beards aren’t that common), loose-fitting shirts, and exercise gear aren’t things you’ll easily spot in Japan.

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