Japanese Manners 101

(or How Not To Embarrass Yourself)

Here’s a word about good manners while living in Japan. Up to now, unless you’ve been living in a cave, you must have heard about taking off your shoes before entering a residence and not getting into a bath while still soapy, since others have already talked these issues to death. But there are a lot more items you may not know. Japanese are very conscious about hygiene (except for the park and train station toilets, which are LETHAL), and Japanese are a very sensitive people — more fastidious about etiquette and proper form. Many Japanese already have a negative image of westerners after observing how some have acted in Japan–hence the reputation of some landlords and real-estate agents not to rent their apartments. Whether you help dispel their preconceptions, or just reinforce them by acting like you belong in a zoo is entirely up to you.

Whether you are in Japan for tourism, travel, or living, your actions have a profound impact on how others perceive you, particularly important if you’re looking for work. As anywhere, many social customs are done away with when in the company of family and close friends, but for coworkers and more formal situations, it can help a lot to remember these.

Here then are a few do’s and don’ts you should know —


It is impolite to eat or drink something while walking down the street.

Do not bite or clean your fingernails, gnaw on pencils, or lick your fingers in front of others.

In restaurants or when visiting it’s customary to get a small, moist rolled-up towel (cold in summer, hot in winter) called an “oshibori” to wipe their hands with. It’s impolite to wipe the face and neck with it though some do in less formal places.

In Japan it is impolite to pour your own drink when eating with others–you pour your companion’s drink and your companion pours yours.

If you don’t want any more to drink, leave your glass full.

It’s customary to say “Itadakimasu” before eating and “Gochisosama deshita” after eating, especially if you’re being treated, as well as “Kanpai” for “Cheers”.

When sharing a dish, put what you take on your own plate before eating it.

Do not make excessive special requests in the preparation of your

food, nor wolf it down.

Do not use your chopsticks to skewer food, move dishes around, and

NEVER dish out food to another using the same ends you just ate

from–use the top ends.

Don’t use your chopsticks to point at somebody.

Don’t leave your chopsticks standing up out of your food.

It is normal in Japan to pick up your rice or miso soup bowl and hold it under your chin to keep stuff from falling.

Traditional Japanese food is served on several small plates, and it’s normal to alternate between dishes instead of fully eating one dish after another.

Don’t leave a mess on your plate–fold your napkins neatly.

Don’t take wads of napkins, sugar packs, or steal “souvinirs” when you leave a restaurant.

Do not put soy sauce on your rice–it isn’t meant for that.

Do not put sugar or cream in Japanese tea.

There is no real custom like “help yourself”. Wait until the host offers something.

If you act as host, you should anticipate your guest’s needs (cream/sugar, napkins, etc.).

If you must use a toothpick, at least cover your mouth with your other hand.

Be aware that in Japan it is normal to make slurping sounds when you’re eating noodles.

In Japan, it’s good (in commercials, anyway) to make loud gulping noises when drinking. Expect to hear lots of it in ads.

It is normal to pay a restaurant or bar bill at the register instead of giving money to the waiter/waitress. There is no tipping in Japan.

It’s considered rude to count your change after paying the bill in a store or restaurant, but the Japanese themselves do give it a cursory lookover.

Everyday Living–

Thou shalt NOT BE LATE for appointments.

There is no custom of “Ladies First”.

Avoid excessive physical and eye contact–forget the back-slapping,

prodding, and pointing directly at someone with your finger (use

your hand to point, if you must).

It is considered rude to talk on your cell phone on trains and buses. Send e-mail or a text message instead.

Remember that Japanese often use silence for communication as much as speaking.

Do not chew gum when working or in other formal situations.

When Japanese start work at 9 AM, they START WORK at 9 AM.

Avoid lots of jewelry or very colorful clothes when going to work.

White-collar Japanese typically leave the office only after their superiors have done so. Do not expect someone to be instantly free once the official business hours are over.

Exchanging business cards is de rigueur in formal introductions. You should extend your card to the other person with both hands, right side up to them (upside down to you). You receive cards with both hands also. Be sure to look at the card and not just pocket it. Never fold it, put it in your pants pocket, or sit on it in front of them.

It is polite to put “-san” after another’s name, or “-chan” after a young girl’s name, or “-kun” after a boy’s name, but NEVER use these after your own.

Do not scream about why nobody speaks English, why there aren’t

5 different varieties of a product you want, or why workplaces or

restaurants are filled with chain-smokers. The “health thing” is

not big here yet.

Avoid shouting loudly at someone to get their attention–wave, or go up to them.

If you have to blow your nose, leave the room, or if impossible at the very least try to face away from other people–and use a tissue–not a handkerchief!

Don’t wear tattered clothes outside, nor socks with holes when visiting someone.

On escalators, stay on the left side if you plan to just stand and not climb them – except for Osaka which is the opposite.

Japan has no tradition of making sarcastic remarks to make a point, nor “Bronx cheers” or “the Finger” — avoid using them.

The Japanese gesture of “Who, me?” is pointing at their nose, not their chest.

The Japanese gesture for “Come here” is to put your hand palm out, fingers up, and raise and lower your fingers a few times. The western gesture of palm-up, closing your hand is only used to call animals to you.

If you ask a Japanese person to do something and they tilt their head away from you, it’s a sign of strong reluctance or a polite refusal.

The Japanese gesture for no is fanning your hand sideways a few times in front of your face.

Japanese residences have thin walls and poor insulation – don’t blast your stereo or television.

Don’t wear your slippers into a tatami (straw) mat room.

It’s customary to sit on the floor in a tatami room (called “washitsu”).

Don’t wear your slippers into the genkan (at the entrance to a home, where the shoes are kept), nor outside.

Don’t wear the toilet room slippers outside the toilet room.

It’s better to wear shoes slipped on easily when visiting someone.

Japanese wear kimono or yukata (light summer kimono) with the left side over the right. The reverse is only for the dead at funerals.

It’s polite to initially refuse someone’s offer of help. Japanese may also initially refuse your offer even if they really want it. Traditionally an offer is made 3 times. It may be better to state you’ll carry their bag, call a taxi, etc., instead of pushing them to be polite and refuse.

When they laugh Japanese women often cover their mouths with their hand. This comes from an old Buddhist notion that showing bone is unclean, as well as a horrendous lack of orthodontics in Japan. If you’re a woman you have no obligation to copy this, but you will soon notice how frequently Japanese do this.

It’s polite to bring some food (gift-wrapped in more formal situations) or drinks when you visit someone.

Gift giving is very important in Japan, but extravagant gifts require an equal or slightly higher extravagant gift in return. Think carefully on giving pricey gifts.

Giving cash is normal for ceremonies like weddings and funerals; but given in special envelopes with a printed or real red tie around it (available in stationary and convenience stores). Use new and not old bills.

After coming back from a vacation it is normal to bring a small gift for all those you work with, even if you don’t really like them a lot. Nothing expensive is required, however.

It’s polite to belittle the value of your gift or food when you offer it, even if it’s blatantly untrue.

In more formal circumstances it’s impolite to unwrap a gift someone brings you as soon as you receive it. In casual surroundings it’s normal to ask the giver if it can be opened now.

It’s polite to see a guest to the door (or the front of a building even) when they leave.

When someone visits it’s polite to turn their shoes around and put them together so they can put them on easily.

This is an older custom, but in a home the guest is seated facing the room entrance. The highest ranking host sits across from the guest.

Again old, but in a car the highest ranking person sits behind the driver. The lowest rides shotgun.

For taxis the driver will open/close the rear left hand door for you.

Japanese often compliment each other to promote good will, but it is polite to deny how well you speak Japanese, how nice you look, etc.

In Japan the whole family uses the same bath water — as a guest you will probably be given the privilege of using the bath water first. Do NOT drain the water out after you have finished your bath!

If you have any tattoos, you had better hide them if you go to someplace like a public bath. In Japan the people with tattoos are primarily the yakuza, or Japanese mafia. Having any will often give others the creeps, and many places won’t let you in their establishment.

©1997-2012 The Japan FAQ:Know Before You Go, All Rights Reserved.

Holidays in Japan

Japanese holidays are a great way to experience the culture. Here’s a few.

Here are some great photos of Japanese nationwide festivals and celebrations!! You may find some big surprises on what and how Japanese whoop it up!

The Japanese New Year

What would you think is the most celebrated holiday in Japan? The Emperor’s Birthday? The nation’s foundation day? Groundhog Day?!? Nope — it’s Jan. 1st — New Year’s Day. And during the first few days of the new year you’ll find EVERY SINGLE SHOP shut down tight. With Japan’s economy heading straight down into the tarmac though, these days you see a few shops opening earlier trying to pull in more warm bodies. Are they succeeding? Partly, yes. While in North America people spend Christmas with their families and whoop it up New Year’s, in Japan it’s (just like for nearly everything else) exactly the opposite. TV is dull, dull, dull. Shops are closed. Videos rental shelves (for those that are open) are raped and empty. Streets are deserted. Until recently up to 10% of the whole population of Japan would celebrate the Japanese New Year by running like hell to the airport and getting out of the country. Millions still do though, since Japanese are given extremely few chances to go abroad in the year, the Japanese festivals are quiet and dull, and escaping the bitter cold of the season is a nice idea. For those that don’t leave though, here are a few pics of what they do….

Osechi Ryouri — New Year’s Cooking

There are many kinds of Osechi for New Year’s. Many are wildly expensive also — as you can see in one one the pictures — 2000 yen for a small case of sweet black beans. Other dishes you can see look like goldfish on a stick, but aren’t. There are small shrimp strung together, various baked fish, sweet jams, fried foods, etc. In older times women slaved for several days to get everything done, but these days they just go to the supermarket and pay in blood.

The New Years Display

Many large stores also have large ornaments like these seen here. Three bamboo poles decorated with flowers and pines are very typical — but different regions of Japan have slightly different types of New Year’s displays.

And here are some pics of a shrine on New Year’s Day —

The Shinto Shrine is the only busy place you’ll find on New Year’s. Many people on the night of Dec. 31st go to a Buddhist temple to hear the 108 bongs of the bell, which are supposed to drive off the 108 sins of the human condition. Traditionally, many visit 3 different shrines on New Year’s, and a few actually stay up all night to do it and see the first sunrise of the year.

It’s about the only time that public transportation is running in the wee hours of the morning; normally they shut down before midnight. Some of the more famous shrines will be jammed with people, as they go up to the altar and pray for health and prosperity for the coming year. It is also one of the few times that you can see some Japanese women in a traditional kimono. Japanese also receive Nenga-jo or New Year’s Cards, and that is the only mail delivered on Jan. 1st. Some mail out several hundred cards to every acquaintance and business contact they have, much to the delight of the Post Office which makes godzillions of yen from it.

Fireworks are generally NOT used, but this too due to the whoop-it-up atmosphere of the West is slowly changing, and in some more populated areas or amusement parks you can see some. You won’t find any home fireworks on sale anywhere though, and if you want to light some up you had better buy them when they are on sale, during the summer usually til the end of August.







Seijin No Hi — Coming of Age Day

seijin no hi

Seijin No Hi is the first holiday of the year after New Year’s is all over. It is for all the women who have just become legal adults (age 20), and most families buy a kimono for their daughter. The typical kimono is 300-400 thousand yen, but much more extravagant kimono can be even as high as a million yen each. On the day the young lady will typically go to a nearby Shinto Shrine and pray for health, success, money, etc. It’s one of the few times you will see anyone wear a kimono — except for the grannies running around going to study or teach tea ceremony. The other occasions are graduation from a college, and once in a while at a wedding. And if you’re one of those country oakies that eats roadkill for dinner and still thinks Japanese dress like this every day, WAKE UP!!

Valentine’s Day

There’s Valentine’s Day here in Japan too. But not quite the same. In Japan, it’s the GIRLS who give the boys chocolate on Feb. 14th. And not just to someone they like. There is a uniquely Japanese characteristic of giving “Giri-Choko” — giving chocolate to the men one would rather see skydiving without a parachute — the boss, namely. “Giri” means obligation, but in Japan it has a deep sense of long-term commitment.

Since gift-giving is a common custom in Japan, many confectionery companies also try to push their own manufactured celebration, “White Day” on March 14th, where it’s the boys turn to give the girls something. This attempt has been at best a limited success.

The Hina Matsuri

The Hina Matsuri or doll festival takes place on March 3rd every year. Its origins go back to China which had the custom of making a doll for the transferal of bad luck and impurities from the person, and then putting the doll in a river and forever ridding oneself of them. March 3rd celebrates Girls’ Day in Japan, and from mid to late February families with daughters put out the dolls with the hopes their daughters will grow up healthy and happy. One superstition associated with this is that if they are late in putting away the dolls when the festival is over, their daughters will become old maids. Most displays consist of just a prince, (Odairi-sama) and a princess (Ohina-sama), but more elaborate displays include the dolls being part of a 5 or 7 tier display (hinadan), along with courtiers, candy, rice boiled with red beans (osekihan), white sake (shirozake), peach blossoms, diamond shaped rice cake (hishimochi), toys, and tiny furniture. Traditionally many parents or grandparents will begin their first display for their daughter, called hatsu zekku, when she is just a year old, but some families have passed their dolls down from generation to generation with the bride carrying her dolls with her to her new home. Aside from the displays, Japanese used to go view the peach blossoms coming out, drink sake with a blossom in it, and bathe in water with the blossoms. The blossoms represent desirable feminine qualities, including serenity, gentility, and equanimity.

The festival evolved into the form we can see today during the Edo Period (1603-1867), and it is still possible for people to buy Hina Matsuri dolls created during that time as well as the late 19th and early 20th centuries in antique shops during the season. Two areas that come alive with such displays and events like those above is Yoshimura and Yanagawa, both in Fukuoka Prefecture.

Cherry Blossoms

The coming of the cherry blossoms (sakura) is one of the happiest events in Japan. First and foremost it heralds the coming of spring, which is a delight since winters in Japan are bone-chilling cold. They also have a deeper cultural significance since they fall to the ground and disappear in only a couple of weeks (and even sooner if the frequent rains wash them all off the trees), which echoes an ancient cultural belief in the short, transitory nature of youth and life itself. These photos show the flowers and how Japanese celebrate — the Hanami, or flower viewing. What this means of course is another bout of wild drinking parties under the trees, and karaoke going until the wee hours of the morning. Every city park with lots of sakura trees will be jammed with people, and finding a spot to even sit down may be impossible. The last photo as you can see is another example of Japanese “living in mystic harmony with nature” (be sure to pass this page’s URL to all your goofy friends who view Japan with sakura-colored glasses). The aftermath of all this is more than just a pretty carpet of sakura petals on the ground. Nevertheless, the sakura are truly a delight to behold, it means the end (or nearly the end, as mother-nature sometimes jumps the gun) to those horrendously freezing winter winds, and you haven’t seen Japan until you’ve seen the beginning of spring.

The Shichi Go San Matsuri

The Shichi Go San or 7-5-3 Festival is one of the uniquely Japanese festivals. Boys who are 3 and 5 years old, and girls who are 3 and 7 are taken to a shinto shrine, often in their first kimono, and the parents pray for their continuing good health and prosperity. The numbers, especially 3 and 7, are lucky numbers in Japan, and until the 20th century Japan was a thoroughly feudal nation with a higher childhood mortality rate. Since bacterial pathology was then unknown to them they often blamed death on evil spirits, and when the kids became 3, 5, and 7 years old they thanked the gods for their children’s good health. A sweet candy called chitose-ame is also often bought for them, in a bag with cranes and turtles, 2 more symbols of long life. Other gifts are also given to them, as you can see some samples like the Japanese animation cat Doraemon.

Jesus WHO?

You might think in a country that’s 99% non-Christian that Christmas would just blow on by and you’d never even realize it. But once again, you’d be completely wrong. Japanese department stores have decked-out trees as colourful as anything in the west, and many streets have colourful displays and wreathes all lined up for blocks. Still, it’s time to set the record straight — it’s most certainly NOT as some dewey-eyed western writers put it “one day out of the year when all Japanese become Christians”. Christmas in Japan has nothing to do with religion at all. Then why is it popular? For one, exchanging gifts is a well recognized cultural trait and Xmas fits in nicely here. For another, the lights and glitter are pretty. But behind that you’ll find very little else. In fact, when it comes to celebration, think Valentine’s Day. Christmas in Japan is more than anything a time to take an important date out to dinner, and for some even to book an expensive hotel room for the night.

Do you keep passing along to one of your “friends” those fossilized 15 year-old cakes in the mail every year? Well, they eat those “Christmas Cakes” in Japan. But there is no big Xmas feast. Turkey is nowhere to be found, unless you want to pay a fortune to a mail-order company or one of the few department stores that carry them. Not much you could do even if you did have one, since for nearly all Japanese the only oven they have is a microwave or a toaster. So given a choice of a turkey sandwich at Subway’s in Tokyo or Osaka, many Japanese go to Kentucky Fried Chicken, where there are always some special Christmas chicken dishes. Expect to see a very long line into every KFC on Christmas Eve. Almost no Japanese have any full size Christmas trees either; their homes being cramped enough as it is.

December 25th is still a work day in Japan. There are quite a few parties though. Tis the season for the “Bo-nenkai”, or “Forget the Year Party”, where many Japanese drink and forget the year’s problems (and more than a few drink enough to forget more than that). There is also writing Nenga-jo or New Year’s Cards for Jan. 1st. And a few give chocolates or small gifts to boyfriends and such, however hark the herald angels sing won’t be something you’ll be feeling here. But if you like drinking a few glasses of Christmas cheer, Japan is certainly the place to be. The beer companies are extremely thankful for Christmas.

©2004, All Rights Reserved. All photos and custom-made graphics contained on this page are the property of the author, and may not be used, copied, reproduced or transmitted without express written permission.

Why Japan Is So Expensive

Why are prices so DAMN high?!

If you haven’t seen the news lately, Tokyo and Osaka have just been declared the most expensive cities on the planet (again). What makes Japan so expensive? Why? And does it have to be that way? What can the foreign resident in Japan do to avoid getting fleeced? There is no simple, single reason. Nor, for the “MTV Generation”, who is raised and programmed to expect instant sound-bytes and have the attention span of a gnat, is there a bumper-sticker, easy quick fix. Some of the issues can and should be dealt with, others are more cultural and won’t be going away soon, if ever. It is not that Japanese are all conniving snakes hellbent on economic world conquest, nor that western companies “just don’t try hard enough”, nor it is as some naive observers say “it’s all just the exchange rates”. All these elements have some truth in them but don’t explain the reasons why. Read on to find a few of the causes–


Land Prices, Rents, and Taxes

Cartels and Collusion

The Rigged, Bulky Distribution System

Snob Appeal

Non-Tariff Barriers

Consumer Apathy/Ignorance


1. Land Prices, Rents, and Taxes

Ask any Japanese why homes cost so much and you’ll get the Standard Party Line: “Yes, Japan is a small country with very little land, blah, blah, blah…” This of course is true. At 127 million people Japan has almost 40% the size of the U.S. population in a land space that’s a bit smaller than California. But that does not explain why a QUARTER of the Japanese population lives in or around Tokyo, or why the Shimane Prefectural government gave away land for free if you agreed to live there at least 6 mos. a year. The real reasons are found a bit deeper. In fact, most Japanese themselves, being completely apolitical, are clueless on how their government or System functions. One of the biggest reasons why Tokyo is insanely expensive is because the government is based there. And Big Business is in bed with the politicians and bureaucrats. So if Big Business is based there, that’s where all the best jobs are and where everyone wants to live. But there’s more. Japan is one of the few nations in the industrialized world that has extremely light property taxes, but if you sell a home the tax is a killer 50%! This chokes off the supply of land and for the average Japanese worker owning a home will only be a dream. Some companies in fact have issued loans to buy a home where your children and then grandchildren, as of yet unborn, will finish paying off the mortgage. Land is also very expensive because floor space per square meter of land is artificially restricted by government regulations. Inheritance taxes in Japan are even more devastating, so dying is a terrible thing to do to your family. Things got still worse in the “Bubble Era” of the late 80s to early ’90s, which was a rampant speculative boom. Since then land prices and rents have fallen dramatically but the real causes have not been dealt with so the problem will not go away.

Still worse, the ever-meddling Japanese government has done it’s part to stick its fingers in and make things harder. The Ministry of Agriculture, Forest and Fisheries still pushes a system where there are “farmers” growing food in Tokyo-to, just to say that there are farmers in the area to have a role in policy making. So just 20 minutes by train out of Setagaya you’ll find farmers growing cabbages on land worth billions of dollars. Why? Low taxes–that’s why. But the situation is much the same in every Japanese city — the rural areas continue to depopulate, and the cities are getting more concentrated. North of Tokyo are literally thousands of square miles of land with almost no people — but the shots are called from Tokyo, so that’s where the VIPs all are. There is one more piece of the puzzle — other high taxes. Income taxes are not too vicious (to the benefit of the wealthy, of course) but high corporate taxes, sin taxes, subsidies, and an 8% Consumption Tax all take their toll. Japanese taxes on alcohol and tobacco are high (for cigarettes over half the price is taxes), and imported drinks are often cheaper than domestic ones (except for snob goods, which we’ll get to in a bit). The government also has heavy subsidies for Japanese agriculture, especially rice. The government gives huge yearly subsidies to farmers, then buys all the rice made at very high prices, and sells it at a cheaper price to avoid the wrath of the consumers. So where does the government get its money, everyone? At the same time it blocks foreign rice imports (gradually the system has been moved to tariffication, but if foreign rice is made more expensive than Japanese rice, of course no one will buy it. Lately more and more farmers are selling outside this system, and it was phased out, finally, by 2008). Previously, Japanese rice cost about seven times the world price. So even if you choose not to eat rice (the Japanese staple food), you pay for it in your taxes anyway. Gasoline is also highly taxed. Currently 54 yen of every liter’s (that’s 205 yen per US gallon) price is tax. And of course there’s the ubiquitous 8% Consumption Tax, going up in a Japan near you (and perhaps again to 10% later). But Japan’s tax is applied also to gasoline and alcohol, so you’re also paying tax on a tax. It also applies to food, as well as to all parts in the production process: compounding itself more and more on durable goods. This alone raises prices on a lot of things, but we’ve just gotten started.

2. Cartels and Collusion

This is also a big factor in making prices soar through the roof. Of course Japan has lots of laws like The Anti-Monopoly Law and The Fair Trade Commission that are supposed to stop illegal practices, but the FTC has always been understaffed, underfunded, and more of a paper tiger than anything else — just the way Big Business wants it to be. And to be blunt, The Anti-Monopoly Law has hurt consumers as well, by allowing high-priced boutiques and mom-and-pops to block the establishment of big stores (which handle more foreign goods) as well as discount stores which increase competition. Currently the US is pushing for abolishment of the whole law. This may bring other troubles though. Japanese social security is woefully inadequate, which is the real reason why all Japanese squirrel away all their money and have the highest savings rate in the world. But that alone isn’t enough. So how will older couples make ends meet after retirement? The mom-and-pop store, of course. With growing numbers of elderly, this problem will reach a crisis in a few decades.

The reason why cartels and collusion are the de facto rule of the land is in the way that the Japanese market functions. And unless foreign firms learn this they are doomed to fail in Japan. In most markets in the world the goal of the firm is profit. In Japan, it’s market share. Whenever there is a new product like a Walkman introduced, every company cranks out as much of the product as they can, at razor thin profit margins (sometimes at a loss, even). Then there is a major shakeout — usually the firms that have less financial backing (i.e. they don’t belong to a keiretsu with a big bank to back them up) have to drop out. In the end, you have a small number of firms, which quickly form a cartel and jack up the prices to make money. Distribution channels are securely locked away, blocking any would-be competitors. At that point, the game is over. Japanese business also has cozy ties with Japanese bureaucrats, and often employs them after they retire in a system called amakudari, which gives them a key player with all the government connections still in place. In the 20th Century, most governments would take up anti-trust legislation; Japan has actually encouraged the growth of big firms to raise its GDP. Ever since Japan reopened itself to the world in 1868, it has been on an export craze to make money — while carefully protecting its own industries. Few Japanese even know, let alone know why, a Japanese camera costs more in Japan than in New York. A lot of the reason is that Japan is out to capture market share, while already securing it from competition at home. This kind of strategy, by the way, is why the Japanese market is the most competitive in the world, and if your company is more interested in next quarter’s profits you will not survive.

One of the more well known and blatant forms of collusion is called “dango”, which is bid rigging, usually by the massive multi-billion dollar construction firms. (Around 10% of Japan’s workers are in the construction industry). The firms divvy up the list of upcoming public projects, then each company bids higher than than the agreed upon to get the contract. The firms get a guaranteed contract at a high rate, and the taxpayer gets screwed. The projects can run into the billions of dollars, such as the construction of roads or Kansai Int’l Airport. Some action has been taken against the firms of late but since it can take over 10 years to prosecute and the fines are relatively minor, there is little incentive to be fair. Plus with Japan’s economy in a coma throughout the 90s, instead of fixing the real problems the politicians are trying to stimulate growth by throwing out more band-aids of pork barrel projects, such as building dams the local people don’t want or the infamous “roads to nowhere”. All this when there is now the worst job security since WWII, massive public debt and a banking sector staggering under bad loans, and the Japanese government is officially in debt at 130% of its GDP (the actual unofficial amount could be as high as 270%). Another case is the beverage and beer industry. When Coca-cola announced it would raise its price to 110 yen per can, every other beverage maker did the same thing. Such is a common practice, but there was no extreme need. No explanation was given, and even worse, none was even asked for. The beer industry is another example. For some reason, all 4 Japanese beer giants charge exactly the same price. The reason given? All four just happened to choose the same price at random. Of course. Nearly every industry acts this way. Domestic flights are more than double that in other countries. Companies often keep tight relationships with distributors and retailers, including advancing them capital they can’t pay back as well as training in selling. And the last thing a retailer is going to do is bite the hand that feeds him by selling a lot of foreign goods that are far cheaper. This economic policy was designed to strengthen large companies and have Japan catch up to the west after WWII. Now that Japan has caught up, however, new policies have never been implemented, and Japan is stuck with a “dual economy”. An excellent analysis of what has gone wrong was written by Richard Katz. Even the media makes an information cartel of sorts, with it’s press clubs (kisha) that all act together and keep other reporters that might report more than the official party line out. The Japanese people all get their news from a self censoring, government mouthpiece press. There is next to no mainstream investigative reporting, or whistle-blowing, deep muckraking stories of the under-the-table deals. Only when a major financial scandal erupts does it ever come out, and after a few weeks of perfunctory apologies and superficial changes, it’s back to business as usual. This doesn’t mean there is some shortage of intellectuals in Japan; the Nihon Keizai Newspaper, and magazines like Seiron, Ronza, and Gendai all offer good reporting. But it is impossible to see the inner workings of government and just how far the corruption goes. Pinning down the responsible party in nearly impossible.

3. The Bulky, Rigged Distribution System

(Or: Do you really need 3 people to wrap your hamburger?)

For a business to succeed in Japan, it needs at least 2 essential things. One of course is capital. The other, however, is control of the distribution channels, and this is where many foreign firms fall short. Japan’s distribution system is a complex maze and their are thousands of regulations to follow. This system is currently strangling the domestic economy. After WWII, Japan had millions of people who needed work fast. So a system was made that employed lots of workers, though many of the jobs were (and still are) redundant. Also there are often several wholesalers sitting between the producer and retailer, each taking their cut. This is one of the principal reasons why just sending the value of the dollar through the floorboards didn’t work. From Sept. 1985 the value of the dollar vs. the yen fell by more than half. Yet products in Japan made from imported parts/ingredients didn’t budge. The real reason was that the middlemen were eating up nearly all the savings. When the dollar hit 100 yen, the Japanese booksellers still used the old 175 yen/dollar rate, and didn’t pass any savings on to the consumers. (You’d be wise to buy whatever books you want in Japan before you come, since the very same books in Japan will cost 2 or 3 times more). In 2000 Merill Lynch economist Jesper Koll noted that Japan has 392,000 wholesalers — a staggering number. Yet two-thirds of them just sold things to each other and not retailers or producers, and four-fifths of Japanese wholesalers have less than 10 employees each. Distribution channels in Japan are extremely exclusive — usually an arrangement to carry your goods also means only your goods and no competitors. Then they have to fight it out with eachother for the store owners to carry their products on the best shelves; space being extremely limited. For decades Japanese people were told (and they accepted) the notion that higher prices were necessary to keep the whole nation employed–and Japan has had the lowest unemployment rates in the industrialized world. Also with land prices so high storage costs are also wildly expensive, and with Japan’s narrow, poky streets large and cheaper distribution is impossible. Docking fees for ships and planes is also insanely high, and it can cost more to ship something across Tokyo than to ship it across the world. High gasoline taxes and expensive electricity also make transport more expensive. In many ways Japan’s distribution system makes up the largest Non-Tariff Barrier (NTB). Other NTBs will be mentioned later.

4. Snob Appeal

After jumping in head-first into Japanese life, and satiating yourself trying all the typical Japanese delicacies and drinks, the ex-pat here sooner or later starts to yearn for a little taste from home. Yet if you go to the specialty store you’ll immediately find that those foods you grew up with, chili, wine, salsa, tacos, soups, cheeses, etc., are all 2-5 times what you paid back home. And if you want to find some perfume, make-up, or Beverly Hills type of gift, the difference is even worse. This is one cultural factor not mentioned in many books. For decades Japan has kept out or highly taxed foreign products for so long that today ANY good that sells from the West immediately has a halo of luxury around it. And for snob-goods, the higher the price, the higher the demand for it. So don’t be surprised to hear about $30 lipsticks or $300 Nike Air-Maxes. Frozen flour tortillas can go for 800 yen a dozen, more than 5 times the price in the US. Concert tickets can cost $100 or more. Sports equipment also commands a high price. And when Johnny Walker Whiskey tried to raise demand by cutting prices on it’s JW Black, demand went DOWN, not up. Even a $5 memo pad from the US is going for $21 in Japan.

5. Non-Tariff Barriers

Up to the ’70s, there were literally thousands of regulations holding back imports. Now there are just hundreds. Today even Japanese Big Business is learning that in order to compete it needs less governmental entanglements. Japanese telephone cartels are suddenly getting competition from call-back companies based abroad, which used to charge 80% less than the Japanese. Today, nearly all the formal tariff and quota barriers are gone. Some apologists declare Japan to be just as free as everywhere else. Yet, market penetration for many foreign goods is still insignificant. The reason? The NTBs. Some laws make up some, such as the prohibition of discount prices on books or CDs, thus blocking or delaying any healthy competition or net commerce like Amazon.com. Today after years of unmet consumer demand, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare is still deadlocked on allowing OTC medicine sales online. The rigged distribution keiretsu also forms one, complicated licensing procedures are another, as well as other barriers that also include the language and cultural differences. Some of these things the West simply can’t pressure Tokyo for abolishment. If you want to buy something, you can use any language that you want. But if you want to sell something, you MUST speak the language of your customer. And even if English is the de facto lingua franca of the world, Japanese by and large can’t speak English effectively. Yet few westerners ever learn Japanese to the extent to conduct business transactions.

Japanese shoppers are also picky and conservative. Goods with a small scratch, dent, or blemish simply won’t sell unless you cut the price way down, and few shoppers are willing to try something different. They think (and in many cases are RIGHT) that Japanese products are as good, if not better than foreign products. So why change brands when you know you’re satisified with what you’re using now? Plus, many US firms are still ignorant of Japanese culture and buying behavior, and think whatever advertising works in the US is good enough anywhere else.

Other problems are that foreigners expect the Japanese market to work the same as other nations, and it clearly doesn’t. On the US-Japan trade deficit, more than 2/3 of it is in cars. But US car makers don’t bother making special models that take into consideration Japanese consumer preferences, taxes on engine size, or Japan’s cramped streets, so many models are too pricey or big. And when it comes to luxury cars the Japanese would rather drive a BMW or Mercedes. Some US and European companies have bought stock of struggling Japanese firms; how much this will change things is still yet to be seen.

6. Consumer Apathy/Ignorance

One other significant but often glossed over barrier is the nature of the Japanese themselves. This too is a problem which won’t be going away overnight. While in the west people are taught to think critically and analyse, Japanese are taught all the more to put up, shut up, and do what they’re told. Thinking is again a group-oriented activity. In this group is a strong “village mentality”, and anything outside the group is generally secondary, or worse, ignored. Charity and grassroots movements are nearly unheard of in Japan. The ideas of personal growth, individual liberty, and privacy are not well defined in Japan. In fact, there is no real Japanese word for “privacy” at all, and the English word privacy has been borrowed (purabashi). Many Japanese in fact mistakenly equate individualism with selfishness. Standing up for yourself is another new concept to Japanese. So whatever retailers charge, the Japanese just pay, no questions asked. A lot of Japanese media and TV also use sensationalism to sell, and objective reality is often trampled over. What’s that? Don’t you pay $25 for a melon and $18 for a bottle of aspirin?? Must be something wrong with your country’s products — there have been lots of stories about shoddy or “dangerous” foreign goods…

And why are so many Japanese like docile sheep ready for the slaughter? Several reasons. One is the educational system, which is based on rote memorization. There is no critical thinking involved — only feeding back data. The goal is not real learning, it is only to pass the entrance exam for the next level up. Hence, Japanese memorize mile-long lists of English vocab and grammar, but are completely incapable of holding the simplest conversation. The same for every other subject. Once you get into college, everything learned is forgotten and the party begins. Many students are so burned out after cramming every night for years that they understandably have no interest in anything but getting some R&R, and have no knowledge or interest in anything else. Then they join a company and the whole grind begins all over again. Throughout, the group enforces rigid conformism. Individualism, genius, and creativity are squashed. The System is very good at mass producing obedient workers for Big Business. So what happens when you want change in government? Most people in other nations would vote for a reform candidate in the next election. Who’s the reform candidate in Japanese elections? You’d never know. In many countries, there’s a debate, tv/radio discussion, etc. In Japan, elections consist of trucks that run around with speakers blaring, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! My name is Tanaka, thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” Nothing concrete ever gets mentioned or promised by the candidates — except buying votes through pork barrel projects, and nothing is demanded by the people. In fact, many people vote the way their companies tell them to — whichever candidate will help out their business or grant more pork. Few politicians can do much of anything anyway since the bureaucrats can obstruct whatever they want and are never voted out.

Worse yet is the bland, toilet-trained media, which when it comes to reporting politics gives “news” of, “The government stated today that blah blah blah”, end of story. Some hour long news show 10 minutes of news, and 45 minutes of sports and weather. Just as in products, there is the media information cartel called the “kisha”, which is the press club. Do anything daring or report anything more than the National Party Line and you may find yourself frozen out of the Club and press conferences. Non-Japanese news sources have often caught the scoop on a scandal, since the Japanese don’t do any deep probing and there are no laws to protect whistleblowers from retaliation. Even so, more and more of the Japanese people are shopping abroad. Yet very few EVER wonder why Japan is so expensive. Most Japanese are completely apolitical and areligious anyway. The news is stodgy and little more than something that should be given to insomniacs who don’t respond to strong drugs. So what do they do with their time? Usually drinking, smoking, karaoke, sports, and dashing madly from one fad to the next. Here today, gone tomorrow. Out of sight, out of mind.

Conclusion, and Protecting Yourself

To end on a positive note, things are slowly improving in Japan. Continued pressure from many nations as well as yet another year of the Japanese economy in Intensive Care is finally resulting in some modest reforms and increased competition. Discounters are bypassing some redundant regional wholesalers, gasoline prices and rents are falling. Much more needs to be done, but at last the ball is rolling. And remember, Japan is just one country – there are others like Australia and in Europe that can have even worse prices for some things.

Also remember that most of these issues deal with living in Japan. For tourists going to Japan, there is a long list of special discounts and bargains you can take advantage of, including numerous rail and bus passes, special air fares, and accommodations which can suit almost any budget – far better than in many other countries, in fact. Today you can fly to many places in the country and abroad on dirt cheap low cost carriers like Peach, Jet Star, and Vanilla Air. In the Kanto area (Tokyo) there actually is an excellent rail pass, the Tokyo Wide Pass, that foreign residents and not just tourists can take advantage of.

So what can you do to avoid Consumer Rape? Several things. Don’t keep your money in a Japanese bank — you’ll get negligible interest on it. Avoid big department stores for most items — you’ll never find a bargain. Look for the discount stores near you–they are slowly increasing. Learn to cook your favorite foods–it beats paying $30 at a restaurant. If you’re large, bring as many clothes and shoes with you as you can. If you’re a woman, bring lots of make-up. Look into mail order such as The Foreign Buyer’s Club, and cheaper stores like The Price Club, or Costco in Japan. See whatever movies and videos interest you before coming to Japan, since movies are very expensive here, as well as censored and delayed up to a full year. Some narrow city streets in Japan have several vendors selling cheaper vegetables and fruits. Have your friends and family mail you vitamins, OTC medicines, cosmetics, books and videos, instead of paying through your nose for such things in Japan. Use Skype or sign up with a cheaper company for international phone calls – otherwise get ready to bend over and grab your ankles. There are lots of other ideas. Use your imagination a bit. Those that survive here are people who can MAKE DO WITH LESS.

Why Are Prices In Japan So Damn High, ©1997-2002 All Rights Reserved.

Teach English in Japan

Secrets on Teaching English in Japan– EFL/ESL

The vast majority of people who come to Japan teach English. Most stay for a year or two, then move on. Now at this point it’s necessary to inject a little reality into the stories going around out there. From the late ’80s a lot of books and anecdotes have come out about how YOU can earn BIG MONEY in JAPAN!! THREE jobs for every applicant!! No experience necessary!!! The schools are practically camped out at your arrival gate RIGHT NOW just waiting to SIGN YOU UP!!!! There are pieces of gold in the street just lying there for you to take them!!! And every time the stories are recycled they get even more exaggerated. Well, I hate to yank those glowing dollar signs out of your saucer-shaped eyes, but the reality isn’t quite so wonderful. Things were NEVER that rosy, not even in the “Bubble Days” of the late ’80s/early ’90s; and tens of thousands of other westerners have read those books too and they’re already here in Japan. In fact, there is such a glut of labor that nearly every school simply pays minimum wage, which is 250,000 yen per month. (Income taxes will eat up about 10% of that before you get it). That is enough to be relatively comfortable in smaller cities, but in the big cities that is not living it up. And many schools these days can be choosy enough to demand that applicants have special qualifications in EFL/ESL, or several years of teaching experience, or both.

This is not to say you can’t get a job, or you must have an IQ like Einstein. The truth is, teaching English at a conversation school is more entertaining than educating. And if you are a young, single woman, you have an automatic advantage. In fact, going to the job interview in a tight suit and high heels might just double your chances. Why? Because the Japanese MEN who run the school would rather have a western woman around, the vast majority of teachers are men, and the students (mostly women, who self-segregate themselves through high school) would feel more open with a woman than a man. In any case, a positive attitude, an outgoing personality, and having a lot of interesting stories to tell are all important factors.

Likewise, being in Japan is a big boost–it shows you’re committed and ready to start immediately. Personal contact is very important in Japan. Some big chain schools recruit abroad or allow you to apply through e-mail, and it is still possible to land a job by mailing out a mountain of resumes, but by and large for better jobs the people in Japan taking the face-to-face interviews will have an edge. Most of the larger chain schools that hire outside Japan do so because they have soiled reputations among teachers in Japan. Once the word is out, they are the workplaces of last choice and taken for a quick visa while looking for a new school. On the other hand, getting an apartment in Japan is often a tough grueling experience. Some long-term expats say that 4 out of 5 places just refuse foreigners period. Being accepted at a big chain school can help out a lot, since they provide accommodations. But if you quit or change jobs, you will of course be instantly evicted. The Nova chain in particular draws a lot of fire since they bed you in with 1 or 2 other teachers, but all the teachers pay full rent for the place. Nearly all schools run on a one-year contract system. Afterwards if you renew your visa, you can get up to a 3 year visa.

Note however if you lose your job or quit, you are required to notify the government within 14 days.

Finding a job depends really on many factors — experience, connections, your personal appeal, and simple luck. Timing is also important — many westerners think they’ll just fly on over in mid-summer, just before the beginning of the school year. Perfect right? WRONG! The Japanese school year starts in April and hiring season is usually January through March. If you miss this critical window, getting a job will be that much harder. There are always some schools posting want-ads in the Monday edition of The Japan Times throughout the year, but since nearly every school runs on one-year renewable contracts starting in April, this begs the question as to why they’re looking for a teacher. Either they scored in getting a new influx of students, or they hired and fired an incompetent teacher, a teacher decided to call it quits, or they treat their teachers like used toilet paper and they’re looking for a new sucker. In the last case you’ll find a job all right but you’ll also be getting much more than you bargained for. Working for a big chain school may or may not be better than a small school — it all depends on the management. Teacher treatment can vary from being treated like a valued asset to a necessary evil. So by all means try and find out how often the teacher turnover is. It’s simple — better schools keep their teachers longer. If you find a place where very few or no teachers stay on a second year, it’s almost certain you’ve found a school you should stay far away from.

Here is a quote (author unknown) from a net forum a few years ago, but still holds true today. It offers a humorous look at the promise and reality of the eikaiwa experience:

For the vocationless graduate with a penchant for travel, the call of TEFL is strong. For the penniless member of the same breed, unable to afford an RSA certificate, beware! A teaching job in Japan is yours for the taking, if you’re prepared to, well…SELL YOUR SOUL.

Perhaps some will feel this is going too far. It is certainly true that there are some plum jobs amongst the cherry blossoms. And yet, without having an insider’s view of the Japanese job scene, it is very likely that you will end up mesmerized by the rampant, glossy, advertising of the giants – Nova, Geos, Berlitz and the American-focused Aeon. These companies are the corporate face of the English teaching market in Japan and prey upon those of us who casually flip through the Guardian Education supplement of a Tuesday. Jostling for our attention in the classifieds are numerous small ads promising great opportunities in Turkey and Russia. Forget them. Allow your eyes to drift towards the reassuringly oversized and sophisticated box that promises: “An Amazing Cultural Experience” and “International promotion and career opportunities” and best of all “TEFL experience is an asset, but not essential”. Wooo hooo! Lets go! And so many do.

In such a way I was lulled into sending an application form to one of the ‘big four’. A couple of months later I found myself staggering towards a big sign in Narita International Airport – ‘Have a nice time in Japan, but don’t break the rules’ it both welcomed and cautioned. The barely registered twinge of uneasiness I felt on reading this slogan was a sensation I was to become familiar with in the following weeks and months. No, actually I take that back. The twinge of uneasiness at the airport was like an orgasmic shudder when I compare it to what awaited me at my new job. If I say I was misled by the London recruiters about my new life and work in Japan, I don’t think I’ve quite covered the magnitude of the situation. The following parable gets closer to how it was:

A recruiter of a big English-teaching company is hit by a bus and dies. She is met at the gates of heaven by St. Peter who says, owing to an administrative hitch, they are unsure where to place her – heaven or hell. Instead she is to be given the choice herself by spending a day in each and then deciding.

Arriving in hell for her ‘taster-day’ she is met by the friendly faces of colleagues from her company, dressed exquisitely in designer casuals. They greet her warmly and show her around hell, which is a beautifully landscaped country club with golf courses and tennis courts. She has a fantastic day playing sports, dining on lobster and steaks, dancing and getting drunk with her friends. Everyone laughs at her jokes and she even gets to meet the devil himself, who is, dare she say it, ‘kinda cute’. It is with great sadness that she leaves in the evening.

The following day she spends in heaven. Here she hops from cloud to cloud, plays harps and generally hangs out with the angels. Again she enjoys herself very much. St. Peter asks her for a decision the next day. After great deliberation, she chooses hell over heaven. ‘To hell you will spend eternity’, St. Peter decrees.

When she arrives the country club and golf courses are gone. In their place is a filthy, desolate wasteland. Her friends are still there, but they are dressed in rags, picking up garbage and putting it in sacks. The Devil comes up and puts his arm around her. “I don’t understand,” she stammers, “yesterday I was here and there was a golf course and a country club and we ate lobster and we danced and had a great time.

Now it’s a wasteland of garbage and all my friends look miserable.” The Devil looked at her and smiled evilly. “Yesterday we were recruiting you; today you’re staff.”

It wasn’t all barren landscapes and torture. After all, I honoured my first year’s contract, and I know many more who stayed longer (mostly, but not all freaks).

Admittedly there were others who only lasted a couple of days. With over 340 schools to fill with some 4000 recruits from overseas, NOVA is the biggest single employer of foreign staff and Geos is hot on it’s footsteps. Take it from me, their insatiable thirst for fresh faces is less to do with growth, more to do with a high drop-out rate as new teachers discover, to their dismay, the true meaning of the Japanese work ethic.

Though I would never outwardly encourage a person to apply for this kind of job, I wouldn’t dissuade them either. I’d just warn them a bit, that’s all. It’s like those guys who perform acts of self-mutilation on stage – you know, sticking swords down their throats and grinding their faces in broken glass. Their claim is that, as they expect and prepare for the pain, they don’t perceive it as unpleasant. This is the name of the game if you want to work for Nova et al. Prepare yourself for the worst and you might just be able to keep a Zen head above water. The beginning is the worst. Three days of training is all I apparently needed to become a professional teacher; less really, as all teaching practice during this paltry training period was performed on live, full-fee-paying clients. The fourth day was the first full working day. ‘Daunted’ would cover how I felt, as a previously qualified and experienced teacher of English to the foreigner. Needless to say, I can’t speak for the majority of new teachers – utterly inexperienced or qualified to teach anything at all. That first day, and every consequential day thereafter, consisted of eight 40 or 45 minute lessons. Between each class was a ten-minute interval. During this blink-of-an-eye pause, it was our duty to evaluate each of the previous student’s performances, give them a mark, hunt for the files of the next class, choose a new lesson, plan it, give a few whimpers of dismay, and go teach again. This factory line approach to lessons – the antithesis of good teaching, as I knew it – is the key to big bucks. The high quantity of classes taught at the school, along with a blanket teaching style, is apparently the winning formula to attract the Japanese public. Fast food English, you might say.

For anyone with ideals about being an original and conscientious teacher, this kind of job is not for you. The strict lesson structure you are trained to use is not to be tampered with. Superiors at my school would often keep an ear open on neighbouring classrooms to ensure the right words were being said; the right lesson stages happening at the prescribed times etc.

On the other hand, for those who need a job and are happy to put aside innovation and imagination for the duration of their contract, you could be on to a winner. As far as I know, all you need is a regular heartbeat and a university degree – a requirement of the Japanese immigration authorities rather than your employer.

On a more positive note, you are helped with accommodation and basic set-up difficulties. Hell, I was even given a company futon. There is ample opportunity to make and save money as long as one doesn’t become too much of an alcoholic (it is worth noting that you will become a bit of one, however hard you try). I lived comfortably for the first time in my adult life and was able, on leaving Japan, to travel for a year. Extra incentive for men is that you will almost certainly experience a renaissance in your love life. The foreign male is viewed as quite a hot commodity amongst many Japanese women.

I must add that all of the above are possible with many of the smaller schools too. A little web research is necessary to find out about them – their pleas for new teachers are rarely seen in the British broadsheets. With a job at an unenfranchised school, you will have more opportunity to experiment with materials and teaching methods. It is possible you will be the only teacher, in which case, your chances of cultural and social interaction with your students are much greater. The contract I signed stated that any interaction with students outside the school would result in suspension or dismissal. Many an evening I would be twiddling my thumbs or getting drunk with my English speaking colleagues, whilst my housemate, employed at a tiny independent school, would be flooded with endless invitations from her adoring students.

Working in Japan can be an “amazing cultural experience” and all the rest of it. It can also be a pain in the arse. Ultimately it is up to us penniless graduates to do the necessary enquiries and not succumb too quickly to the over-polished promises of the English teaching giants.

It is very important to try and find out what place is somewhere you’d like to be. Talking to other teachers (especially outside their workplace) who’re at the school you’re looking at can give a lot of insight. Is the boss a petty Napoleon? How much can you modify a lesson to meet the student’s needs? How much notice do you have to give to end the contract early? What happens if you get sick? Do you get the minimum legally required 10 days a year off? Will you ever get a raise or bonus? How much time do you have to prepare for classes? Will the school pay your commuting costs? Will they pay some or all of your health insurance? And will you be working on national holidays and weekend nights? The contract is another good sign. Many schools require 20-25 class hours per week, but these days some larger school chains require a grueling 30 hours or more. Some schools try to virtually run their teacher’s lives, requiring them to be there 40 hours a week, even when they aren’t teaching classes. Will you be called on to do endless contractual “as other duties require”, like spending hours trying to wheedle students to sign up and pay for another year? Some might also try to prohibit you from getting part-time work or private tutoring (which is really how you make ends meet in Tokyo or Osaka). Some schools might welcome your ideas on teaching and materials, others may just shove their own curriculum down your throat. Given a choice, it would be better to hold out for a better school. If you come all the way over to Japan to work, why not have a positive experience instead of a nightmare??

The Japan FAQ:Know Before You Go

(C)1998-2013 All Rights Reserved.


On Japanese Culture

Japanese Culture — A Primer For Newcomers

Culture Shock 101: A Primer

NO!! This is not another site on Japanese Zen and rock gardens, nor fantasizing about pretty geisha, samurai, ninja, and Japanese comics. This site is to familiarize you with a few basic characteristics of Japanese culture and behavior that the westerner will encounter. There are many reactions and attitudes that Japanese will give off — many of them the typical westerner would ordinarily not pick up on. But if you come to Japan and want to have better relations, as well as a better understanding of how many Japanese people think and perceive you, there are a lot of key items you should be aware of. Some you may like and others you may not. That, of course, is fine — you’re entitled to your own views, no matter what anybody else says. But you will have to deal with some of the cultural and behavioral aspects whether you like it or not. Those that can recognize and deal with the differences in Japanese attitudes will adapt faster, get better jobs, and have a more positive experience living in Japan. Do not feel that you will ever have to completely understand the Japanese, since the Japanese don’t completely understand themselves either.

*Important*: Japan has a lot of positive traits, and a lot of negative ones also. You’ll find Japan captivating, bewildering, enchanting, enraging, humorous, frustrating, loose, uptight, accommodating, and anal-retentive — sometimes all at the same time. However, the contents of this site center more on the negative aspects than the positive ones since these are what make life for westerners more difficult here. They are meant to show more of what culture shock is experienced and are *NOT* to be taken as an accounting of the number of good traits vs. the bad.

Here are a few basic traits to remember–

Uchi-Soto — Us and Them

The Gaijin Complex

Honne and Tatemae — The Real Mind & The Veneer

Osekkai! — Mind Your Own Business!

“Goatism” — Giseisha and Urami — On Scapegoats, Victims, and Envy

Amae — Dependency

Tate-shakai — The Vertical Society

Shikata ga Nai and Gaman — You Can’t Fight City Hall

Nihonjinron and Kokusaika — We Japanese & Internationalization

The Iron Triangle and the Empty Center


1. Uchi-Soto (“Us and Them”)

This is one of the first things you will notice about the Japanese. The Japanese have been raised to think of themselves as part of a group, and their group is always dealing with other groups. This is viewed on many angles — internationally it is “We Japanese” vs. everyone else (more on that later), but in schools, companies, sections of companies etc. there are many groups and sub-groups — and not always in perfect harmony and cooperation as it may look on the surface. Dealing with Japanese on a one-to-one basis usually comes very easy to non-Japanese, but dealing with Japanese as a group can be a different matter altogether. And no matter how nice you are, or how good your Japanese becomes, you will always be treated as an outsider. In fact the literal meaning of “gaijin” is outsider. Many westerners see Japanese as aloof, shy, and always walking on eggshells. There is a lot of truth in that — Japanese are extremely sensitive to what others might think of them (or worse — what they say behind their backs, and Japanese really do engage in gossip) and are very hesitant to do something new, different, or independent. Being ostracized is one of the worst things that can happen to a Japanese, who is raised to be part of a group and depend on others. Therefore, when making requests, it often takes more time since the person asked usually consults others in the group to reach a consensus. It also might interfere with what your goals are — when teaching an English class a teacher might give some subjects for the students to debate. Of course the goal is for the students to use as much English as possible and improve their abilities. But what happens is the students revert to their old habits and try to compromise and reach a consensus — in which case, the conversation promptly ends. In short, however, while the westerner starts so many sentences with “I”, the Japanese “I” usually means “with the approval of the group”. This is not to pass judgement on this trait, as in many things there are both positive and negative aspects. For the westerner, it can be good in that you are often not subject to what sometimes becomes excessive, even oppressive methodologies. On the negative side, even if you do find a group or niche that you want to be in, you may be frozen out or the last one to find out about many decisions that profoundly affect your schedule and work.

Uchi-soto has one other important trait — there are next to no strikes in Japan. Ever. Because Japanese labour-management relations are better? Partly, yes. But in Japan there are almost no industrial unions like the Teamsters or AFL-CIO. Each large corporation has its own union, and they feel no bond with other company unions even if they are doing the same work. In one sense, the company union is almost a puppet, led by a management executive. But in another, everyone in a Japanese company knows that to succeed they need to act together, and being profitable in the long run is the only way to guarantee employment. You don’t see a lot of the friction between labour and management in Japanese firms — one reason is that the workers often cave in since they know a profitable company eventually benefits them. Another is that they know the CEO and execs don’t make 100 times the money the workers do, or $2500-$5000 per hour (That’s no exaggeration either — you do the math.)


2. The Gaijin Complex

How Japanese view non-Japanese is always a subject of debate. Often there is a mixture of admiration, suspicion, and most often a lot of nervousness about dealing with someone who doesn’t look or act like the Japanese. As stated in the Japan FAQ, it is very hard for non-Japanese to get an apartment, or a loan, credit card, etc. There is no logical or rational explanation for this conflict — since Japanese do not think in a logical, rational fashion, at least in western terms. If you look at Japanese TV ads, the first thing you’ll notice is that there are westerners in about a third of them. There are also half a dozen fluent Japanese speaking foreigners endlessly recycled on TV variety shows, constantly ingratiating themselves and amusing the Japanese enough to want them back. They are part of a group called “tarento”. Their only real talent is speaking Japanese well, and many long term ex-pats see them as intellectual whores since they must go through the same problems others do, yet they know the rule of getting invited back on TV is to never bite the hand that feeds them. Yet there are also periodically TV infotainment shows following the cops and catching those awful foreigners committing crimes in “our country”, with sinister background music shrieking away. Japanese youth generally show positive attitudes about you, from others there is often indifference. And then there is the racial question. Many people coming to Japan ask if the Japanese are racist and cold to westerners. The answer is not that simple. Some pigeonhole Japanese as racist because they are treated differently, assuming it is because of skin color – which is not in itself accurate. It is more because a foreigner is not one of “us”. So a clear distinction between racism (which exists in every country, including Japan) and xenophobia is needed. It is no exaggeration to say that, bending the metaphor a bit, the Japanese see things through xenophobic glasses. It must be emphasized though that Japanese racism is in almost all cases NEVER HOSTILE towards others — so the idea of people screaming epithets at you like in the U.S. is inaccurate. (And lest you feel superior, you won’t find skinhead thugs or people in white sheets in Japan, and being a woman or minority religion or race might get you far worse treatment in many countries. Maybe even yours). Online the question from would-be travelers to Japan asking if Japanese like or dislike foreigners is recycled enough to make your eyeballs fall out. Yet nothing is so black and white. With the exception of Tokyo and a lesser degree Osaka, where you could not avoid seeing a foreigner if you tried, most Japanese rarely see and almost never deal with a foreigner, so as elsewhere in the world most are simply indifferent. Few Japanese shun everything foreign (European luxury items are in fact wildly popular) and the stories of Japanese going out of their way to be friendly or help out a foreign tourist (without some ulterior motive) are legendary. So long as we Japanese are us and you are not. For some young Japanese, having a western boyfriend/girlfriend is a status-symbol, but when things go deeper (especially for a western man/Japanese woman) some people with small townish attitudes can change. Suddenly some of the same people showering compliments to the Japanese with a western lover are asking if he/she is weird, or warning about dire consequences. The attitudes from the Japanese parents may be even more disturbing. In short, it’s cool (kako-ii) to look western on a superficial level, but anything more serious may bring a negative reaction.

Nihongo Wa Jouzu Desu Neh!

Upon entering Japan you’ll soon discover an unusual trait of Japanese — they can in a way both insult you and compliment you at the same time. One good example is that on top of a few Japanese “Love Hotels” (which are hotels decked out in glittery pink neon and rent rooms by the hour or night for obvious reasons) you will find a big Statue of Liberty. (photo) It may be flattering that such an American symbol is taken for “liberty”, but at the same time to see it on top of a sleazy hotel is a little disconcerting. In the same way, the westerner coming to Japan will right from the airport be drowned in the “compliment” Nihongo wa jouzu desu neh, or “Your Japanese is so good”. It’s usually spoken in a “Look Mom, the horse can do math problems” kind of way — unintentionally but slightly condescending. The problem with all this is that it is put on you a thousand times a day, every time you open your mouth, in exactly those same words — never once said in a different way. And the fact that it has nothing to do with your Japanese ability. In fact, the better your Japanese gets, the less you hear it. Even more demeaning is hearing “O-hashi wa jouzu desu neh” which means you can use chopsticks well. The fact that a 4 or 5 year old Japanese child is supposed to use them easily but you’re never expected to know how is a slight few Japanese are “international” enough to realize. To the Japanese, they are not consciously looking down on you, but rather trying to establish rapport through bombarding you with things they think you like to hear. It’s important not to get upset about this and just as they would, play humble by denying the praise over and over. All of that is relatively benign. The real problem is dealing with the occasional neanderthal where even if you have attained near native fluency they still have a “See-White-Face, Hear-Japanese, Does-Not-Compute” mentality, or the elitist complaining how you foreigners never bother to learn Japanese, and then you come along speaking fluent Japanese and they insist in doing all communication in English. The reason being that more conservative types see language as race, and race as language, and when there is someone not part of the group suddenly among “us”, they unconsciously feel a threat. There are not many countries where race and nationality are closely tied together. Dealing with such Groupthink is going to be a challenge, but while you never have to like it you’re going to have to deal with it. Many Japanese view westerners on two levels — if you are taken as a temporary visitor, they nearly always treat you extremely warmly and helpfully; even lavishly. But if you are someone trying to become a member of society, there can be quite a different attitude from some. In contrast, other Asians are expected to pick up the Japanese language quickly, and there often is little tolerance for those that do not.

The term “gaijin” according to the dictionary means foreigner or alien, and literally means outsider. In practice however, it always means “white person”. Japanese use a lot of discrimination — Chinese and Koreans are usually referred to by their nationality, not as “gaijin”, unless speaking in legal terms. [And whatever your complaints you may have, remember SE Asians have it far worse.] The gaijin = white person stereotype is so deeply ingrained into the Japanese psyche that when the Japanese go abroad they still refer to whites as gaijin, and despite using their passports, US dollars, and going through US Customs, they are still not consciously aware of Hawaii as being a US state. Even though all Japanese know Michael Jackson and Tiger Woods are from America, it still doesn’t dispel their notion that ALL Americans are blue-eyed blonds. Many Europeans or Australians in fact chafe at the immediate assumption in Japan that at first sight they are all American. The term “gaijin” is not in itself pejorative (though it can be used that way), but when one Japanese tells another he’s doing something like a foreigner it’s a strong put-down. Many Japanese ex-pats who’ve lived abroad are viewed suspiciously. If one’s English is “too good”, he might be ostracized. For Japanese children who’ve spent time abroad and can speak English fluently (kikoku shijo), bullying from classmates can be swift and cruel. There are also more than a few binational children in private international schools because of the mistreatment they had in Japanese schools. There is one exception though — the Celebrity Factor. If one becomes a Japanese celebrity, singer, actor/actress, etc., then paradoxically all is forgiven. Then the cruelty is turned on its ear and you become a paragon of Japanese achievement. This all sounds contradictory, but the Japanese sometimes follow such an irrational and unpredictable course.

It is important not to make a mountain out of a molehill, however. Some ex-pats start foaming at the mouth describing how on trains Japanese prefer to stand then take the last seat next to the foreigner, or going to a restaurant the nervous waitress rushes over to take away your chopsticks and bring you a spoon. While that certainly could be called discrimination and feeling some irritation is understandable, if that is the worst treatment you get then consider yourself lucky, as far as being a minority in a foreign country goes.


3. Honne and Tatemae

There is the way things are and the way we’d like them to be. The reality and the facade. The real reason and the pretext. The substance and the form. Being direct and being diplomatic. And the truth and the white lie. In short, that is honne and tatemae, respectively. Since avoiding conflict and trouble is extremely important in Japan, using diplomatic language is often used rather than the direct approach. It’s said that in formal situations a direct “No” is avoided and there are a thousand nicer alternatives — which can be true, but it depends a lot on the situation and social status of the parties involved. Some westerners unfairly call this deceptive, but this shows more ignorance of how the culture and language are intertwined. Japanese may say things very politely and vaguely, but if the meaning is not clear it’s perfectly acceptable to ask for clarification. But while we in the west judge tatemae to be cake icing and hypocrisy, the Japanese have elavated it into an art. Sometimes, anyway. When it comes to creating a reason, in some cases the Japanese seem to have left their reasoning on Pluto. Like blocking European ski equipment from the Japanese market because “Japanese snow is different”. In fact, almost every “reason” for not importing foreign goods is crammed full of it. While many so-called Japan “experts” tell the world about how much Japanese stress “harmony”, the reality is that they push THE IMAGE OF harmony. What lies beneath may be completely different.

“Let’s have dinner together sometime.” — A Culture Clash

In the west when someone says to another “let’s have dinner together sometime”, it usually means “let’s have dinner together sometime”. Sounds like an invitation, doesn’t it? And if you’re new in town, don’t have a lot of friends yet, or looking for a date, it sounds even better. Unfortunately, if a Japanese person says that or “Come over to my place sometime” to you, what he/she really might mean is “I hope we get along well together.” (In fact this is often said of Kyoto people, whose Japanese sounds among the Japanese to be extra refined and polite, and empty invitations are legendary). Is that more than a little confusing? I had 2 big shocks from this myself. When I first started working at a company, I had one secretary (the cute one everybody wanted to date) tell me this. Now, if the other 5 or 6 secretaries all said the same thing to me as a matter of etiquette, it would be obvious immediately. But only one did, and after agreeing on a date and time, I got stood up. I dismissed it as a misunderstanding, but when a similar situation occurred again later, the message was clear. So let this be a caution — take offers with a pillar of salt. Unless specifics like a date and time are mentioned, don’t hold your breath. If you’re really interested, leave your phone number, tell the person to call you anytime, but don’t sit waiting by the phone Saturday night.

Once you adjust your thinking from romance language syntax (subject-verb-object) to the Japanese syntax (subject-object-verb), Japanese is easy to learn. Understanding it is a different matter though. How’s that? In Japan, a part of tatemae is speaking diplomatically, and what is not said may be more important than what is. There are also a certain number of fixed phrases that translated directly don’t mean a lot. “That’s a little difficult” (Sore wa chotto muzukashii) really means “No way!”. “I’ll think about it” (Kangaete okimasu) is a declination or refusal. And “Yoroshiku o-negai shimasu” can mean “pleased to meet you”, “with my best regards”, or “I leave it in your hands, please do your best”. Why don’t they just say “no” when they mean no, you ask? How western of you. We might like it more but in Japan it’s not part of the culture — besides that, there’s always a 1 in 100 chance that the situation might change and then you might say yes — so why burn your bridges behind you?


4. Osekkai! — Mind Your Own Business!

Japanese society has two concurrent streams that frequently bump heads and the result as you can guess is friction, tension and stress. One current is protecting your own privacy, following your dream, and doing things your own way at your own pace. Facing this is the overwhelming social pressure to conform, follow the rules, and make sure everyone else is in the same boat as you. With big Japanese cities having extremely high population densities, personal space is scarce, and with little space in front of you many Japanese retreat to the only space they can; inside their heads. Becoming introverted, shy and withdrawn is not atypical. There are exceptions to this of course; some young people love to associate with westerners because of this and they can more freely express themselves and not have to worry about being looked down as too gregarious. Liquor consumption is also high in Japan and used as a social lubricant to loosen up. But privacy in Japan is a precious commodity, for cultural as well as demographic reasons, and nobody likes someone to butt into your life.

Unfortunately pushing everyone to rigidly conform often does just that, and many Japanese take it upon themselves to make sure everyone is in lock-step with one another. Most often, like many things in Japan it is done indirectly, such as through gossiping, backbiting and meddling. Hence in Japanese there’s a plethora of terms referring to a nosy busybody, such as osekkai, sewa yaki, kansho-zuki, yakkai na sewa, and deshabari. This is viewed in different ways of course. In the ivory tower books on Japan there is the company superior who is also your counselor, paving your way to a better future, getting that reservation at a popular place or bank loan for you, etc. But there may also be the company autocrat who tries to know everything about you to manipulate you or run your social life, and for women can even cross the line into sexual harassment (seku hara).


5. “Goatism”– Giseisha and Urami

The term goatism comes from scapegoat, and for a time was a frequently used buzzword by the Japanese. Japanese also have very positive traits, but this is not one of them. In many instances, Japanese love to think of themselves as the victim — when trade frictions grow, when international criticism of Japanese stances mounts, or especially when it comes to responsibility for WWII, Japanese often retreat into a scapegoat or persecution complex. The fact that their export frenzies and occasional cases of dumping have brought hardship and unemployment in their target countries rarely dawns on them. Perhaps the best example of this was 20 years ago when Mitsubishi and Hitachi were accused of espionage against IBM to gain industrial secrets. Yet in the Japanese press IBM was villified of hatching a plot of entrapment along with the FBI against 2 innocent and successful Japanese firms. The Japanese are just doing their best, producing things people want. What could possibly be wrong with that?

The Japanese vs. The Borg

Ok, boys and girls, it’s test time! Ever see the Borg on Star Trek? Ever wonder if the Japanese are really the Borg in disguise? See if you can tell which said the following statements!

“Let’s all live in a harmonious society” (whether you like it or not).

“We only wish to raise quality of life”.

“We are not Saracens, we do not come as invaders to sow desolation…we offer our knowhow, better quality of life, greater reliability, and the beauty of sound and image.”

“You’re just raw material to them.”

“You will be assimilated!! Resistance is futile!!!”

A little tough? The first and third are from Japan — the third was a full page ad in the French newspaper Le Monde after growing criticism that Japanese mass-exports of VCRs to France were seriously hurting the economy and draining foreign exchange reserves. But the Japanese have extreme difficulty in seeing things objectively when Japan is involved. When things go well, the whole world is just jealous at how hard Japanese work. When things go bad, suddenly it hasn’t anything to do with me. When the Japanese military in WWII overran other forces, the whole country rejoiced. When the war was lost, it was the army that was guilty, not me. This attitude is still in the A-bomb Museums in Nagasaki and Hiroshima — never a word about the war or its causes; only one day the Japanese went out to work as usual and this big bad bomb was dropped on them. Want to know what happens when some Japanese brings up the subject? Look at a former mayor of Nagasaki, Hitoshi Motoshima — he made a statement that Japanese should discuss Hirohito’s role and possible amount of guilt, and a right-wing kook promptly shot him. So much for a debate in Japan. Many Japanese have their noses so hard-pressed against the grindstone that they can’t see the forest for the trees. The majority of Japanese are not well educated or are indifferent about the past. And many Japanese wonder why many SE Asians still harbor ill-will towards Japan. Periodically, without fail, some Japanese politician makes a remark that Japan’s “advance” into Asia (not “invasion” — that term was purged from textbooks by the Japanese Ministry of Education) was all well intentioned, and the Rape of Nanking et al either never happened or was grossly exaggerated. And this view doesn’t come from the kook fringe, it comes from the elite leading the country. If this is the way Japan’s leaders act, it’s no surprise that other nations still hold a grudge. Until recently all Japanese music was banned in Korea. And the Chinese, despite having a massive superiority in military might as well as nuclear weapons, is still hypersensitive when it sees anything like an active military in Japan. That said, there is no shortage of nuts online who unfairly blame today’s Japanese for what happened over 75 years ago. It is not relevant to present lives today, and would be like constantly blaming today’s Americans for the genocide against native Americans, or today’s British for the atrocities against Indians in the 19th century. Of course, the subject is never brought up in Japan. The image of harmony is very important, and so the Japanese try to avoid open conflict wherever possible. And to be fair, the Japanese may have a lot of Groupthink, but no, they don’t all act as one like The Borg. The stereotype of “Japan Inc.” is false — within the government, the parties, the companies, and the company departments you find sub-groups, all working strongly against eachother for more money, budget, power, etc. Only when the diverse groups agree on something (like keeping foreign goods out as much as possible) is anything decided and implemented quickly. The Japanese are NOT hate-mongers, it must be re-iterated; they don’t froth at the mouth when you bring up these subjects, rather they think what they are taught to think. You’ll find the Japanese are very open, gracious and kind to westerners in Japan. On television Japanese spend a lot of time patting each other on the back on how supposedly “unique” they are. The problem comes when someone in charge takes that one step further and thinks unique is really “superior”.

The term “giseisha” means victim, or sacrifice. It is also used when things don’t go the right way. No one wants to take responsibility for reform in Japan if it offends those who pull the strings (even if it benefits the nation as a whole). “Gaiatsu”, or pressure from abroad (usually for political reform the Japanese bureaucrats are too constipated to do themselves), is often used as a whipping boy. Japanese also have one other noticeable trait — the Urami Complex. Urami means envy, and Japanese are keenly aware of what others in their group have or get. Many Japanese motives are based on envy, and while equality in the west means a fair chance for all, in Japan it’s more like spoiled children thinking, “if I can’t have it, neither can anyone else”. Japanese society itself has been pictured as a round table, with everyone sitting around it — and viewing what everyone else has or does. Being branded as someone who causes trouble (meiwaku) is the worst scarlet letter (even if you are just standing up for yourself) and almost carries the stigma of child killer in the West. Lots is spoken about harmony and being equals in a group. So in office politics there might appear to be a lot of non-committal attitudes and indifference, and lots of smiles and superficial agreements to avoid open conflict. But not everyone can end up as CEO or section manager, etc. so there must be a weeding out along the way. Behind the smiles and polite courtesies there are often feelings of resentment and stress, often from being in a cramped room with others for 5-7 days a week, as well as from jockeying for position on who’ll get promoted. If the Japanese are really so happy and harmonious, why are so many gulping down liquor and chain-smoking their lungs out every day, not to mention the suicide rates being one of the highest in the world? Behind the veneer you’ll find a lot of stress and pressure which is kept well hidden.


6. Amae – Dependency

Amae means basically dependence. In Japan, mavericks and lone-wolf types are very much frowned upon. When Japanese go off alone to a foreign country or somewhere, many rapidly become insecure. It’s no exaggeration to say that Japanese (particularly women) think on a more childlike level. Again, this is a double-edged sword. Japanese women undeniably have a lot of charm that comes from this. But it has its drawbacks as well. Douglas MacArthur made a remark that the Japanese should be treated like they’re all 12 years old – a highhanded, sweeping slam to be sure – yet still had a bit of truth in it. And that was over 70 years ago. That sounds condecending of course but these days you don’t exactly see a large number of western women wearing frilly, cute clothes or carrying around Mickey Mouse pencil cases and Hello Kitty notebooks well into their 30s. Women are taught to act and look cute, not sophisticated (not that all do, however). Japanese pop music sounds like it was written by elementary school students, and pop-stars (“idoru”, from idol) are here today, gone tomorrow. At any rate, amae is a fundamental characteristic of Japan–one (the ‘kobun’) presumes on a superior (the ‘oyabun’) in a group, and a vertical, symbiotic relationship is created. It often occurs when one joins a company or school, and a person needs something and to get integrated into a comfortable niche very quickly. The underling gets a channel to move upward and the superior gets someone to do their bidding. And as part of a group, success is shared by all, and guilt is diffused when something goes wrong. In the latter case, it can be detrimental because it’s impossible to find out who is responsible, or for anyone to take responsibility. Amae has several other manifestations. Women are always portrayed as frail, delicate, or dainty in pictures, TV, movies, and music. And in adult videos women are treated like trash who are just asking for it. When movies are dubbed in Japanese, the women’s voices are always abnormally high; the men’s are very low. The same for women announcers. And regarding all the overblown praise you still hear ad nauseum about Japan’s “lifetime employment system”, in reality it only applied at best to about a third of the Japanese workforce, namely elite white collar workers and unionized blue collar workers in large companies. With Japan’s economy flatlined for over 20 years, it is even less true today. It does not apply to women, and it certainly does not apply to foreigners. Women are relegated to being “Office Ladies”, or “OL”, doing minor clerical duties, making tea, and being wallflowers (shokuba no hana). When they reach their 30s or if they marry they are often coerced to quit. With Japan’s population in decline and needing workers however, this may finally be changing. A take-charge woman in Japan will not get as much help or attention as a cutesy airhead who always needs the help of some big, strong, kind Japanese man. And why are things like this? Perhaps it’s because some men might actually have an even bigger ego-deficit than the women, despite appearances.


7. Tate-Shakai — The Vertical Society

Tate Shakai means a vertically structured society, like the military or a caste system. The phrase was made by Japanese sociologist Nakane Chie, who wrote a good book on it. From 1600 until 1868 Japan was an officially segregated society with 5 classes of people. At the top were the samurai, then the farmers, then the artisans, then the merchants, and finally the outcasts (the grave diggers, leather tanners, etc.). The system collapsed because among other things by the end of the Shogunate rule, the merchants had all the money. Yet even today a shadow of this system is still around; while a democracy on paper, the notion of Jeffersonian egalitarianism is still alien. Everyone belongs to some group, and every group has people of superior rank and status. The notion of boss and worker being perfect buddies after work without a thought of the company relationship for Japanese is impossible. The language itself has many words for “I” and “you”, each showing how much respect (or lack of) one shows the other. This trait also contributes to a strong materialist mentality in Japan; of always trying to “keep up with the Jones” and many paying absurd prices for brand name and designer goods. There are other manifestations also. We’d think universities exist to educate the students. Yet in fact in Japan universities serve the needs of the professors more, who are given carte blanche for privileges while students are subjected to numerous excessive rules, and professors pay little regard to the quality of their classes. (In Japanese colleges you can nearly sleep your way through and get straight A’s though). And some foreigners have quipped that the Mercedes that are illegally parked on the street get a lot fewer tickets than other cars–that may or may not be true. However, while in the US it’s a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” in Japan it’s really a plutocratic government “of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich”.


8. Shikata ga Nai and Gaman – You Can’t Fight City Hall

OR: Deru Kugi wa Utareru (The nail that sticks up gets hammered down)

Shikata ga nai means “There’s nothing you can do about it”, and is often used by Japanese when they face a troubling situation they think they can’t change. It is in fact a strong form of brainwashing put on the Japanese from the day they’re born to conform and follow orders without question. Again, this fits in with Tate Shakai in that the strong control the weak and the weak exist to serve the strong — be it the almighty Company, or the Establishment. You will find the Japanese do an enormous amount of complaining about things they can’t change (e.g. the weather), but put up and shut up about things they can (e.g. political corruption, cronyism, unfair treatment by superiors, etc.). At least until they’re full of liquor and you see their personality do a 180. By making the underlings feel powerless it is far easier to control them, make them work harder or give “voluntary overtime” (work for free, which is illegal but many companies practice), sacrifice themselves more for the group, etc. There are more than a few Japanese who would say their work or company takes over and consumes their lives. In the West this would be seen as sinister, and it can be. But to be objective, it also makes the Japanese tougher competitors in both Japanese and international markets. If ever one falters, or feels he can’t take it, he is told to put up with it (gaman). Gaman means to take it or be patient, and again, is a double-edged sword. For Japanese it’s a source of great strength. No matter how hard things get, they just keep fighting (ganbaru). This has allowed Japanese to overcome enormously difficult times, including natural disasters as well as a bad economy. But on the negative side, there is also a time to cut your losses and reform — and Japanese sometimes get blinded to this and fail to see when more fundamental structural changes need to be made.


9. Nihonjinron and Kokusaika – “We Japanese” and Internationalization

The term Nihonjinron (or “Ware Ware Nihonjin”) is a “We Japanese” mentality. It is part of the Uchi-Soto mindset except it is almost always applied in a “Japanese and everyone else” kind of way. Japan is the center of the world — and if you buy a map of the world don’t be surprised to find Japan in the middle of it. This can be very bewildering to westerners in Japan. If there’s a Japanese news report of a plane crash somewhere in the world with 398 non-Japanese and 2 Japanese people, the news report will focus on the crash and then the lives, family, and friends of the 2 Japanese. The rest of the people? They don’t exist. They’re never even mentioned. Another example is when 2 Japanese baseball players, Hideo Nomo and Hideki Irabu, made it on US teams. Suddenly, you start seeing lots of major league baseball games on Japanese TV, with the promos blaring “Major League Baseball–Nomo!!” as if he were the captain, manager, and God’s greatest gift to the team. Other MLB games without Japanese players are not shown. And all this in spite of the fact that Nomo became a persona non grata in Japan’s leagues because he wanted to throw the ball his way, not the way the manager dictated. (Nomo now says he’ll never play baseball for a Japanese team ever again. And he’s still hailed as the baseball hero of Japan.) As stated, when Japan is involved in an issue, the Japanese often find it hard if not impossible to look objectively. If a foreigner criticizes some act of corruption in the Japanese government, many Japanese will feel offended that this foreigner is attacking “us”. In other words, in a society where show takes precedence over substance and getting along with the group is more important than work performance, there are more than a few Japanese who’d take anything even slightly negative against Japan as a sweeping condemnation of everything Japanese as well as insulting their mother’s honor, and might be answered with “then why don’t you just go home, you racist foreigner”. Japanese don’t have a monopoly on this attitude by any means, but it can be quite surprising to suddenly get such a retort. Hypocrisy is something attacked in the West, but in Japan it is often standard procedure. Even today, when western nations ask Japan to open its markets (to the benefit of the whole Japanese population), many Japanese initially see it as an attack on the Japanese way of life and culture. Rice, the most heavily protected product in Japan, is the by far the biggest example of this. The agricultural unions cranked up their propaganda machines about how rice is the soul of Japan and how “unsafe” foreign rice is. And the Japanese people bought it hook, line and sinker. The current recession is testing this notion however, and due to GATT Japan was forced to grant “minimum access” to foreign rice. The powerful yen also has sent many Japanese shopping overseas. Yet instead of wondering why Japan is so expensive, the typical reaction is how weird it is that other nations are so cheap. This old system, as well as attitude is slowly changing, however.

The term “Kokusaika” or “Internationalization” is another trendy buzzword being bounced around the country. Everyone is supposed to become more international these days. However, since the Japanese never bothered to define what exactly “international” is, it is just another vacuous idea. To many Japanese women being international is carrying a Louis Vouitton bag and drinking Budweiser. To others it’s meeting foreigners (i.e. white people–the rest of the world doesn’t matter) and speaking English. And many Japanese can’t even picture anything of what “international” is supposed to be. This is not surprising since many Japanese haven’t a clue as to what “being Japanese” is either. It is often the subject on TV shows. McDonalds was first told they’d never make it in Japan, since “Japanese eat rice-balls, not hamburgers”. Coca-cola got the same message with green tea. Now both have billions of dollars in revenue from Japan. Some Japanese even ask Americans if Kentucky Fried Chicken is in America, as if it were a Japanese invention, or even ask if there are 4 seasons in your country, believing that Japan is the only nation in the world where the seasons change. Since no working definition exists however, “being Japanese” usually means doing things the traditional way — a backwards looking view. Whenever some big reform happens, it’s always decried as anti-Japanese, but Japanese soon adapt and it disappears from mind. And Japan is still Japan.


10.The Iron Triangle and the Empty Center

OR: The Buck Never Stops

These terms are the lowest common denominators of how things run in Japan. The Iron Triangle is the Japanese System — the politicians, Big Business/Special Interests, and the bloated bureaucracy. So who runs the country? None of them, really. Each is engaged in a tug-of-war for their own interests. The politicians want re-election, the bureaucrats want cushy jobs and bigger budgets (and fight reform and any attempt to streamline themselves out of a job) and Big Business/Special interests want protection, public works projects, subsidies, and freedom from the other 2 groups’ meddling. And each coddles or lambastes the others to get what they want. The bureaucratic ministries themselves are often at war with eachother, with one department or ministry fighting another in turf battles. The winner gets more clout and a bigger budget. What happens when something goes wrong? Each side points their fingers at the other, and plays the blame game. Since Japanese do things by consensus, getting a consensus means a lot of negotiation and horse-trading (nemawashi). In Japan even the smallest problem must turn into a major crisis before something is done about it. Yet even then dithering is not unheard of. In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, one of the worst in Japanese history and compared to Chernobyl, an independent investigation commission finally concluded that the crisis was a “man-made disaster” resulting from collusion between the facility’s operator, regulators and the government. In fact the lead author lays the blame of the catastrophe directly on Japanese culture itself. Kiyoshi Kurokawa, a former president of the Science Council of Japan, concluded, “What must be admitted — very painfully — is that this was a disaster ‘Made in Japan.’ Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program.’ ” Suggesting that the mindset that supported the negligence at Fukushima “can be found across Japan,” Kurokawa also urged Japanese to “reflect on our responsibility as individuals in a democratic society.

Even if some reform is passed, it’s up to the bureaucrats to implement it; and by tacking on numerous procedures and red tape (called gyosei shido, or “administrative guidance”) they can severely water down its effects. And since bureaucrats are not elected, and have lifetime careers instead of leave at the end of a political administration, progress has been glacial in many areas. People vote for politicians who can bring home the most pork. Fully 10% of the Japanese people are employed in the construction industry, a major beneficiary of public-works spending. With Japan’s post-war economic miracle and rapid urbanization, but no change in the distribution of political power, today’s dwindling rural voter has 4 votes to every urbanite–and they continue to pursue protectionism and pork at the expense of everyone. And politicians are more than happy to oblige for the votes. Today Japan’s budget deficit is officially nearly 240% of its $5 trillion GDP (unofficial estimates put it at over 270% of GDP) and rising. And these practices show no sign of ending soon. And in many industries, the mafia (yakuza) carry considerable influence. (For a comparative study, look at Italy’s history for the last 100 years. The parallels are uncanny). All of this is not to conclude in totality Japanese culture is bad, wrong, or inferior. Rather, that there is a severe flaw in the rigid, militaristic obedience and unquestioning Groupthink.

So how can such a system exist in a “democracy”? In part because there is no accountability or taking of responsibility — nor any effective Freedom of Information Law where the public can see how its tax money is being spent. In other nations, there is the public “right to know”, but in Japan info is only disclosed if there is a “need to know”, and so far the government feels the public doesn’t need to know. Only in 2001, after a full 22 years of Liberal-Democratic Party stonewalling, did any such law come into effect — and the politicians and bureaucrats can still withhold any info if they feel there are “sufficient reasons”. To sum up their attitude, one LDP Diet member warned that the law could give “a mistaken notion of direct supervision by the people”.

The Empty Center is another term for the Japanese System. In short, the person at the top is not the person in charge. The Prime Minister is not the most powerful man in the country, but the puppet-masters who put him there are. The person with the most business contacts and bureaucrats in his hip pocket stays in the shadows and exerts influence from there. This is not new. Historically, for centuries the Emperor was a powerless figurehead — it was the Shogun who ruled. Yet to maintain order, the Shogun always said he ruled in the Emperor’s name — never was there a declaration of a new dynasty. Often when scandals erupt, it is the president of the company who resigns — even if he didn’t have any direct connection — out of a sense of giri, or a duty to fulfill social obligations. In fact, by the time a proposal reaches the CEO, it’s more or less decided by the underlings and consensus already. The top-down, take charge approach is not common in Japan. However, for small companies and the like, the manager may exercise total control. For you, maybe in a small school or firm, you might face a petty-dictator or a control-freak. Power is the ultimate drug — if you come here, you can’t get it, but you may have to deal with those that are addicted to it.


Where do I fit in?

For the foreign resident in Japan, the attitudes of the ex-pat actually goes through three predictable phases, of varying lengths 1) The Honeymoon Phase, 2) The Critical Phase 3) The Integrating Phase. Let’s look at each of these–

The Honeymoon Phase

This always is the mindset of the eager foreigner who has just arrived, and usually lasts a few months to a year. Every day in Japan is like a new day at Disneyland; everything is new, there are lots of places to see and things to do, meeting the warm Japanese is always a joy. Usually the language isn’t much of a burden since you simply don’t know much of it and don’t worry about it. It is these people who stay a short time, go home, and spread myths about Japan being a mystical Shangri-La, full of happy, happy people and money just lying in the street waiting for you to pick it up and make “Big Money Fast”.

The Critical Phase

For those that stay longer, they usually leave the Honeymoon and then enter the Critical Phase, which might last several months to even a few years. The disillusionment of Japan not being a Paradise on Earth sets in hard, and the ex-pat encounters frustration at dealing with the language (which is profoundly difficult), cultural differences, and Japanese social obstructions such as the constant treatment of being an Outsider, as well as the needless difficulties in finding an apartment, getting a loan or credit card, or functioning in society. The ex-pat may also find that some of the young Japanese have been really friendly more to practice their own English than to become genuine friends. The pleasures and joys of the things back home become missed more, and the realities of paying some of the highest prices on the planet become clear. Meeting other ex-pats who vent their stress by attacking nearly everything about Japan may aggravate the trouble. One doesn’t have to look hard on some internet discussion forum to find constant inane posts like “why do Japanese hate foreigners” – in spite of the fact that there are few to no other countries that are willing to help foreign visitors more. Try naming some countries that welcome you more, without having some ulterior motive of ripping you off, screwing you over, or getting your money from you. Not to mention that Japan is one of the most religiously tolerant nations in the world. There are no rabid fundamentalists trying to force their religion down anyone’s throat, deny science, or push “family values” (always their family’s, not yours); nor are there a bunch of gun toting crazies always ranting about the “guvmint”.

Depending on the person, isolationism or alienation may also set in. It is quite easy to spot an immature ex-pat by seeing how they make sweeping generalizations that all Japanese people are racist, cold, etc. and think they know everything there is to know about Japan because they just do the same things every day. He may also believe he has all the answers to everything wrong with Japan and become more irate with the fact that Japan isn’t following his brilliant conclusions. These types who go home for good usually have little positive to say about Japan, spread misinformation about Japan on the internet and may permanently hold enmity toward it.

The Integrating Phase

If the ex-pat sticks it out though, and usually takes a periodic vacation to blow off steam, he will usually enter the Integrating Phase, the most objective of all. He can see both the good and the bad of Japan and where he’s from, and learns to appreciate the best of both worlds. This is the person who has matured more and is an asset to any company. It is not unusual for long-term ex-pats to have a love-hate relationship with Japan, but over all, they have a stronger resilience as well as a greater tolerance than most people back home. Different people of course will behave differently, and your mileage may vary. It is important though to keep an open mind, to learn about yourself as well as Japan and where you’re from, and not to get bogged down with negativity. And remember whatever problems you face, others like southeast Asians have it far harder. It’s not unusual to learn as much about your own country as well since you can note the differences.

This then gives you a few of the more difficult cultural aspects of the Japanese. Many of them may delight you and others may completely sour your stomach — but remember that they may take your behavior as equally “uncivilized”, so there are always more than 2 ways to look at it. In many of the aspects listed above, the Japanese do not have any kind of monopoly; many traits could apply to other nations as well. Nor are the Japanese all wind-up drones – you’ll find variety there, as anywhere (though many bureaucrats would love to run things more like an ant colony). Remember you’re not from Utopia either, and if you were, you wouldn’t be thinking of coming to Japan. Once again, for the “why-is-there-only-bad-things-in-the-newspapers” crowd, it’s necessary to re-state that what is listed here is not the whole of Japanese culture, only the things that are difficult — Japan has many, many positive traits as well but these of course will not be problematic for those adjusting to Japan. If only every single sentence above could start with “Japan is still overall a great place, but…” without it getting redundant. Your treatment will largely depend on your attitude – those who can keep things in perspective and maintain a certain tolerance will do far better than others who walk around with a chip on their shoulder. On the whole, the Japanese people are very warm, helpful, and gracious to the western visitor. One can attain a lot of personal growth as well as make a lot of good friends in Japan. Only when the westerner stays here long enough and tries to go deeper into the Japanese society does the resistance begin.

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