The Uniqueness of Japanese Customs
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The Uniqueness of Japanese Customs

By ELIZABETH GIBSON for The J-Pop Exchange

My husband and I recently began talking about a future trip to Japan. It won’t be for awhile, but it’s fun to daydream. Now, neither of us have ever been, so I started researching some travel tips. I remember hearing from friends years ago that Japan has some cultural traditions that may seem odd to a Westerner who’s never been there before, so I decided to check them out.

Here are a few things to keep in mind if you ever think about planning a trip of your own:

— The number four is avoided if at all possible.
Similar to unlucky number 13 in America, people go out of their way to not use the number four. This is because the Japanese number for four is similar to the Japanese word for death: shi (死). They take their superstitions pretty seriously in Japan.

— Tipping (servers, drivers, etc.) is seen as rude.
We Americans love to tip our restaurant servers upwards of 15 percent (or at least I know I do). But apparently it’s considered an insult if you leave people serving you extra money. If you were really pleased with the service, some suggest leaving a small gift instead of money. In fact, it’s customary to give small gifts to hosts, as it’s a great honor to be invited into someone’s home. However, make sure your gift is wrapped up in fancy paper and ribbons and “belittle” the gift you’re offering as a sign of humbleness.If you’re ever given a gift, protest the generosity at first, then accept, but don’t open the gift in front of the giver.

— Pushing and shoving, especially on the train, is normal and to be expected.
I usually can’t stand when people are shoving me to get me out of their way. But I suppose if it’s not intended to be rude, I can live with it. There are even designated people (“oyshia” or “pushers”) whose job it is to push as many people as they can to fit on the train before the doors close during rush hour.

— Blowing your nose is considered extremely rude.
This one will be difficult to get used to. My husband suffers from terrible allergies that are usually only helped by medication that makes him drowsy, so you can usually find him blowing his nose. Apparently, though, it’s okay to sniffle in public as well as sneak into a bathroom to blow your nose. Luckily there’s an online how-to guide for the, er, occasion.

— Dinnertime etiquette is a tad different.
In America, it’s considered polite to serve others a drink and then serve yourself, but in Japan, it’s rude to serve yourself. It’s also rude to eat everything that is served to you, because they want to know your meal was satisfying. Another thing, Japanese people like to slurp their noodles (with their faces close to the bowl, of course) to let those who served it to them know that they’re enjoying their meal. Not only do you get to enjoy noodles like they were made to be enjoyed, but you have the opportunity to feel like a kid again!


1. Wikipedia, Japanese Superstitions:
2. Rough Guides, Japanese Culture and Etiquette:
3. CNN, How To Survive Tokyo’s Subway Sandwich:
4. WikiHow, How To Blow Your Nose In Japan:
5. Nippon: A Cultural History of Noodle Slurping:

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