On Being a “Good” Foreigner in Japan

Japan has built a reputation as a safe haven for tourists, often going out of their way to help them and making sure they have a good time. Most notably, Japanese citizens grant foreigners “gaijin power”, or forgiveness for any social mistakes that they may commit. While they are nice enough to excuse any ignorance, when you are abroad, you should try your best to learn these unspoken rules so as not to live up to the “entitled American/foreigner” stereotype. Here are just a few of the behaviors I’ve noticed.

Train practices

When riding on a train, it is expected that everyone stays quiet. Often time, “salary men”, or employees often characterized as wearing suits and working long hours, fall asleep on their commute home. As a vast majority of the employees here work over time, it is good practice to be considerate. This general concern for others begets other rules like putting your phone on “manner mode” or silent/vibrate, not eating as to avoid creating a smell, and not answering phone calls.

When waiting for the train, make sure you’re waiting orderly in line. When about to board the train, step to the side of the doors and wait until everybody gets off before you step on. You should always yield your seat to the elderly/pregnant/injured (in some areas where there’s priority seating, this is mandatory). Move into the middle of train if you’re standing so as not to make it difficult for the next person to step in.

Japan’s public transportation system is very good so you may find yourself riding the trains a lot. With a general concern for others, Japanese people try to make the riding experience good for everyone so it’s important to try to remember these rules as well.

Food Practices

When you start your meal, you say “itadakimasu”, as a form of saying thank you for the meal prepared. When you finish your meal, you say “gochisousamadeshita”, as a final thank you for the meal. Never pass food chopsticks-to-chopsticks or leave your chopsticks “stabbed” upright in food, as this is only done in funeral ceremonies. In restaurants, there is no tipping. If you’re outside, you don’t walk and eat at the same time. When you’re done with your trash, you have to separate it. Japan has some of the strictest trash laws so it’s important to take care in making sure your trash is in the right place. This helps keeps Japan’s streets very clean, something it is known for.

Food is most commonly used as an expression of culture, and Japan is no different. By adhering to the customs that the Japanese use, you can show a level of respect that will make the food and the experience that much better.

Parting Thoughts

While these represent a small portion of the unspoken rules Japanese people live by, the underlying principle is the mindfulness of others. If you as a foreigner seek to minimize your disruption, you will find that most of these considerations come normally, making your time here enjoyable for both you and the Japanese.

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