Top 10 Things Unique to Japan

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Moving to Japan soon? Maybe you’re considering a move or you just arrived. Either way, here are the top 10 things unique to Japan, that you will need to come to terms with. Some things will be simple and easy to adjust to. However, others could be a little more difficult and take you months or even years to grasp. Here are our top 10 things to help prepare you.

1. Japanese-what?

The most obvious difference between your country and Japan is, of course, the mother language. In Japan, you’ll be surrounded by Japanese and depending on where you live will determine how English friendly your area is. For example, bigger cities will hold the majority of native English speakers, and foreign chain restaurants or stores will be more accommodating in terms of menus and staff. In contrast, living in more rural areas or smaller towns will probably make life a little more challenging, and I would say interesting to boot.

Of course being pro-active and studying before you arrive can only give you an edge. With the amount of resources on the internet, including YouTube, apps, podcasts, etc you have little excuse. Additionally, you could take lessons with a tutor in your home country or online too.

When you arrive in Japan the options open up even more, as you will be immersed in the Japanese language. Just going out is an opportunity to experience the native tongue. However, you also have free community Japanese course, private tutors, language schools, homestay programs and more to support you. In addition, you might be inclined to join a meetup events or make a language exchange friend.

Most importantly (self-plug), you can find a range of lessons on the native language and culture on this site. You could also start with a first recommended post on Japanese.

2. Catch a Train

If you end up living in Tokyo, Osaka or another major city, then your commuting life should be reasonably easy enough. Living in the countryside is a whole other ball game, with a car and perhaps a bus, being your only major transport choices.

The Tokyo train system is by far one of the most complex and sophisticated systems in the world. Especially, being the biggest city on the planet. So apps like JNTO Japan Official Travel App, Google Maps, Hyperdia and so on will take a lot of the guess work out of your journey.

3. WTF? is that an Address?

Perhaps you’re used to street names and numbers, well that’s not the case in Japan. Most streets or roads don’t even have a name. The address system itself is so complex, even the Japanese cannot understand it half the time.

The address system typically starts with the biggest district first, usually referred to as a Prefecture. You then move onto cities or city wards. From there you will move onto the specific city and city district number. The following numbers then get more specific, referring to the city block and building number. Sometimes you may see a fourth number, this generally corresponds to the apartment or unit number.

For example, the address of the Tokyo Central Post Office is (as per Wikipedia):

〒100-8994
東京都中央区八重洲一丁目5番3号
東京中央郵便局
〒100-8994
Tōkyō-to Chūō-ku Yaesu 1-Chōme 5-ban 3-gō
Tōkyō Chūō Yūbin-kyoku

or

〒100-8994
東京都中央区八重洲1-5-3
東京中央郵便局
〒100-8994
Tōkyō-to Chūō-ku Yaesu 1-5-3
Tōkyō Chūō Yūbin-kyoku

The order is reversed when writing in roman letters, to better suit Western conventions. The format recommended by Japan Post is:

Tokyo Central Post Office
5-3, Yaesu 1-Chome
Chuo-ku, Tokyo 100-8994

4. Cash is King

Japan is far from being a cashless society, even by today’s standards. The major retail outlets, supermarkets, convenience stores and taxi providers are the main supporters of credit cards or cashless payments. Outside of this realm and it is safer to assume cash is the only payment optin available. The smaller retail boutiques, bars and restaurants will rarely offer this option.

Banks still charge fees for accepting card payments, roughly 3%. Plus, merchant facilities are also another burden for small businessees. Both of these can cut into their profits, and so for them, there is no incentive to accept cashless or card payments.

5. Free Wifi is limited

Even in a country which has the reputation of being a technological behemoth, the opposite couldn’t be more from the truth. Wifi is still limited to the odd chain cafe, select restaurants, convenience stores and some hotspots. The transport companies have thankfully caught on though, so you can find most stations and airports with some form of internet access.

In any case, it’s better and more convenient to carry your own portable wifi or get a prepaid simcard for your stay. Check out our guide on Wifi spots for more info.

6. No tipping … Period.

In Japan, there is no tipping culture and there never was. Rather, they generally pride themselves on their service levels. So much so, that the offer of a tip could be considered an insult.

In general customer service is seen as a privilege. The phrase ‘お客様は神様です’ (Okyakusama wa kamisama desu) holds true in Japanese culture and the way they think about the customer. It’s literal meaning states ‘the customer is god’.

Of course, there has been the off chance where I have refused change from a taxi driver because I hate coinage. Further, in a bar I will usually buy the bartender a drink, that’s my way of showing appreciation for putting up with my Aussie BS.

7. Point Cards are a Thing

You’d be surprised by the number of reward systems available in Japan both at stores, restaurants and even online. The number is beyond crazy, and trying to keep up is even more of a hassle.

It is not uncommon for people to hold over 5 different point cards in their purse or wallet too. Luckily, retailers are catching on, and apps are slowly making our lives a little more streamlined.

In any case, you can check out our guide on T-Points and T-Point Cards for further info.

8. Shoes Off

When you enter someone’s place for the first time, it’s customary to take your shoes off no matter what. I still haven’t found a place (minus hotels) where this was OK. Also, it’s generally considered polite to say ‘お邪魔します’ (O-Jama shimasu) which translates into ‘Please excuse my intrusion’.

You may encounter a similar rule in some restaurants, especially izakayas with a second floor or more traditional eateries. Here you will find tatami mats or flooring, which should be treated with care. Shoes can easily damage this kind of flooring, and so this another reason to ensure you take them off.

9. Smoking Areas

For those non-smokers, this may be a bit of a challenge, especially in restaurants, bars, clubs and even the general outdoors. The amount of smokers in Japan is estimated to be around 20 million people or around 15% of the total population. Thus, it is still considered one of the largest tobacco markets in the world. This, even though that number has been in continuous decline since the 1990s.

Of course, you are safe in general public places like retail or department stores, train stations and trains, airports and taxis. Yet, with restaurants, cafes and bars it starts to blur. Starbucks is one coffee chain that has banned smoking from its premises both inside and outdoors. However, other Japanese coffee chains tend to provide separate smoking and non-smoking areas. Major Restaurant franchises tend to follow the same principle. Meanwhile, bars and Japanese izakayas tend to be a mix of all.

At the end of the day, I would recommend you learn these phrases and characters. 喫煙 (Kitsuen) means ‘smoking area’ and 禁煙 (Kinen) means ‘non-smoking area’. Especially in restaurants you may be asked ‘Kitsuen seki’ or ‘Kinen seki’, the addition of 席 (Seki) just means seat. Hence, the staff are asking if you would like a smoking or non-smoking seat.

On the other hand, if you are a smoker, then this probably good news in that you can enjoy smoking in some places indoors.

10. Minimal Garbage (Rubbish) Bins

We have previously written about this already, but its safe to say you will hard pressed to find garbage bins in Japan. The places where you can usually find places to dispose of your trash are most convenience stores and railway stations.

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Otherwise, you are expected to take your trash with you and hold onto it until you can dispose of it properly.

The easiest things to dispose of usually are small 600ml water bottles or aluminium cans or bottles. If you buy these from a vending machine, they typically provide a place to dispose of them next to the machine.

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