I started teaching English here in Tokyo and in today’s lesson my student had to explain to me different Japanese customs that foreigners might not be aware of.
Also, last Sunday Lisa and I went hiking at Mount Takao. So both of these subjects are being juxtaposed into one blog posting.
First of all, I’m not going into too much depth about Mount Takao. It is an hour train ride away. There are several trails to the top. The easiest is a paved sidewalk that can be used by the fat and elderly. It takes about an hour to get to the summit. There are two more rugged trails (trail 6 and the Inariyama Trail) that offer better views. We took trail 6 up, which follows a stream, and then hiked down on the Inariyama Trail, which had a couple of panoramic views. Our entire trip, including breaks, took 3 hours.
So it really wasn’t a whole lot to report home about, but there were some nice photo opps.
That being said, I have lived in Tokyo for two months now. Surprisingly, I have started to adjust.
Two weeks ago I started teaching English part time. My lesson studio is at Tokyo station in the heart of the city. Almost all of my clients are businessmen. We meet one-on-one for 40 minutes and either have guided conversations or follow a lesson plan.
It doesn’t pay a lot, but at least it supports my beer habit.
I have also completed one freelance video project, am working on a freelance story and will start another freelance writing
project next month. So that is going well.
Enough about me, let’s talk about Japan.
There are many social customs in Japan. I have broken most of them already and need to repair some relationships because of it.
Maybe these tips will keep someone from making the same mistakes, or at least help them make a good first impression.
* Dress professionally. Japanese care about image and composure. Sure, most of the kids wear outlandish fashions, but they still do so with some style and flair. They are not sloppy. The older generation, as well as the younger generation, will think more highly of you if you dress to impress. For instance, wear black slacks. At work, it is a requirement. And during the three cooler seasons, wear a dark suit and tie. In the summer it is okay to wear a short-sleeved white shirt without a tie. I am sorry that I cannot delve into women’s professional attire. Ask Lisa.
* Carry multiple business cards with you, and hand them out liberally. My business card is in English on one side and in Japanese on the other. I also have a leather wallet in which I carry my business cards. When you first meet someone on a professional basis, hand them your business card with two hands. If you are meeting with two or more people, you give your card to the boss first, then to the second in command, and then go on down the line of peons. Japanese believe very much in hierarchy and follow it religiously. If you are seated at a table with these business folk that you just met, place your wallet on the table, and you lay the boss’ business card on top of your wallet. Then you line up the other business cards according to hierarchy. Also, never write on someone else’s business card or fidget with it. They take that shit seriously.
* Bow motherfucker. I still feel awkward as hell bowing to people. I just want to shake hands and be done with it. Sometimes greetings require multiple bows. Make sure you don’t go overboard. If somebody is clearly lower than you on the social ladder, such as a store clerk or a police officer, a nod of the head will suffice. For everybody else, keep your back rigid, and bend at the waist. Don’t go any further than a 30 degree angle. And only give a deep ol’ “kiss your toes” bow to the emperor or your mother in law.
* For the love of god be on time. And when I say on time, I mean exactly on time.
My former Japanese teacher gave me this example: When she was studying English, she would arrive at the instructor’s apartment five minutes early, and then stand outside the door until the minute hand hit the exact time before knocking. It is rude to be late, but it is also considered rude to be early. For instance, I have been going on job interviews, and per American custom, I have been arriving 15 minutes early. The interviewer will greet me 3-5 minutes before the meeting is scheduled to start, and they apologize for making me wait. It is considered poor form to make someone apologize to you.
* When having drinks, always fill the boss’ glass first, and do not let him pour it himself.
Also, it is up to you to make sure his glass never goes empty. Like the business cards, you fill the glasses in order of importance. If you are the gopher, then you are the drink bitch. If you are somewhere in the middle, then you should pour drinks for those higher up on the pay scale, but be sure that those below you keep you refreshed. I tell you, they take this shit seriously. Of course, as an American, I just expect everybody else to fill my glass for me. We are always #1.
* When visiting someone’s home, bring a gift. Usually a nice snack or sweets. The wrapping is the important thing that matters. You should almost spend more money on a card and the wrapping than on the actual present. However, the nice thing about Japanese stores is almost all of them will wrap your purchase for you for free, and they do a lovely job. And newspaper does not count as wrapping paper.
* You can smoke in cafes and restaurants, but you can’t smoke outside. I know, it’s ass backwards. There are designated outdoor smoking areas, but they are impossible to find. You can also drink alcohol in public, but only white trash (or dumb Americans) do it.
* Do not blow your nose in public.
* Do not yawn in public.
* No PDA! It is frowned upon to even hug your wife or give her a quick peck. And for god sakes, never touch another man in public, even if it is just a pat on the back. Grabass is out of the question.
These all seem like simple things, but at the same time, some these idiosyncracies are commonplace in America. It is very easy to break one of these rules without knowing it.
That being said, most Japanese are understanding towards foreigners and will give you the benefit of the doubt. However, if you recognize these customs upon a first meeting, especially a business client or a future in-law, it will impress them to no end.
Good luck out there! You’re gonna need it.
Addendum: It is also considered rude to make fun of Japan and point out its weird customs.