- Various numbers hold superstitious connotations in Japan. Many of these superstitions relate to the way certains words for numbers and objects sound similar to negative concepts. For example, the number four (shi in Japanese) is also the word for ‘death’. As a result, many people and institutions avoid the use of any numbers containing four. Similarly, the number nine (ku in Japanese) has the same pronunciation as the word for ‘agony’ or ‘torture’. People often avoid giving hair combs as gifts, since the word for comb (kushi) contains both the number four and nine. Meanwhile, the numbers seven and eight are generally considered to be auspicious.
- Tattoos (irezumi) have a historical association with criminal activity in Japan. There remains considerable stigmas against both the practice of tattooing and people with tattoos. Many Japanese, particularly the older generation, see an association between traditional Japanese tattoos and the yakuza (mafia-like organisations). Visible tattoos may result in businesses denying services, such as public bath houses and fitness centers. As such, people often conceal their tattoos.
- Cigarette smoking is a relatively common habit in Japan, though there has been a constant decline of tobacco use over the last few decades. Outdoor smoking is generally frowned upon especially on public streets, although cigarettes are often readily accessible for purchase from outdoor vending machines. Meanwhile, indoor smoking is quite unregulated and it is common to find lenient smoking restrictions in many workplaces and food establishments. There are also many designated smoking rooms in various locations, especially by public transport hubs.
- Japanese women tend to be hyper-sexualised in certain forms of pop culture and entertainment, both within Japan (e.g. in genres of anime and manga) and outside the country. Be aware that it is highly inappropriate to carry these stereotypes into your interactions with Japanese people.
Relationship with Korea
The history and legacy of the 19th and 20th century continues to strain the relationship between Japan and Korea on an international and interpersonal level. Many negative attitudes stem from the largely forced migration of Koreans to Japan in the late 19th to mid 20th century. Moreover, thousands of Korean women were forced to provide sexual services for the Japanese military during World War II (known as “comfort women”).1 This continues to be a source of tension between the two countries, and may influence relations between certain Korean and Japanese individuals. Many Koreans view Japan’s approach to remembering and addressing previous conflicts as dissatisfactory and problematic.2
While Japan’s image is quite favourable in most Asian-Pacific countries, a survey by Pew Research Center in 2018 found that only 35% of South Koreans have a favourable view of Japan while 63% hold an unfavourable view.3 South Koreans aged 50 years and older, many of whom have personally experienced Japanese occupation within their families, are particularly critical with only 28% holding a favourable view.4 Some of these negative attitudes are also held by Koreans in Japan, particularly among the older generation.
The geopolitical division of Korea between the People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) is somewhat mirrored in the ideological divide between two main Korean organisations in Japan.5 One is Mindan, which is ideologically aligned with South Korea, while Chongryon is aligned with North Korea. The distinction between both is more ideological than geographical, and those Koreans associated with either Mindan and Chongryon are not necessarily linked by ancestry to South or North Korea respectively.6 Both organisations operate many Korean private schools in Japan that seek to preserve Korean culture and language. However, these schools are not always legally recognised, meaning students may face challenges in gaining university admission or future employment.7
Get a downloadable PDF that you can share, print and read.