Japanese Culture

Do's and Don'ts

Do's

  • A good conversation topic is the hometown or prefecture (local area) of your Japanese counterpart. Many take pride in the region they are from and feel a deep sense of belonging to their region of birth, even if they left many years ago. In particular, many welcome conversations about the major notable natural landscapes of the prefecture or the local ‘famous’ product of the area.
  • Try your best to follow Japanese customs and expectations of etiquette (see Etiquette). Much of Japanese daily life is prescribed by many implicit norms, rules and social expectations surrounding conduct and behaviour. Many Japanese are understanding that these customs may be hard for a visitor to follow and are accepting of faux pas. They may also slightly alter the way they interact in order to accommodate their foreign counterparts (e.g. offer a handshake instead of bowing). However, it reflects well if you show an attempt to learn.
  • Be mindful of personal space and physical contact as many people highly value their personal and physical distance. Ask permission before doing an action that may invade their personal space (e.g., before passing food on to their plate or prior to taking their photograph).
  • Try to be humble and modest in your communication and expression. It is considered polite to lightheartedly disagree with someone when they compliment you. Similarly, try not to give excessive compliments or expect your counterpart to accept compliments you offer.

 

Dont's

  • Try not to arrive late to appointments or cancel arrangements last minute. Punctuality is extremely valued in Japan and is expected of both people and services. If you anticipate delays, inform and apologise to your Japanese counterpart.
  • Avoid being overly critical or blunt in your expressions. Your Japanese counterpart may take criticism personally. For example, if they have taken you to a restaurant and you do not like a dish served, commenting on its quality in a critical and negative manner may be interpreted as a comment on their skills as a host, even though they did not prepare the dish. Such occurrences can quickly cause a Japanese person to lose face (menboku).
  • Do not assume that Japanese culture and society is homogeneous, or that people share the same characteristics, behaviours and attitudes. Japan is more diversified and heterogeneous than many portrayals suggest. 
  • Avoid drawing on stereotypes of Japanese culture as unusually unique and mysterious. These types of assumptions (collectively known as nihonjinron) imply Orientalist ideas about the people and country. 
  • As for much of the Asia-Pacific region, World War II is a sensitive conversation topic. Though some may be open to speak about this time period, others may not be open to such discussions. If the conversation topic does arise, avoid talking about the actions of Japanese people as if your Japanese counterpart was there. For example, phrases that imply the individual needs to claim personal responsibility, such as, “You Japanese did this…”. Your Japanese counterpart was likely born after these events and thus had no part in them. Moreover, their families may have been victims of other wartime events, such as the atomic bomb explosions.
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