When you’ve spent quite a bit of time in Japan, you soon realise that it’s easier to say no in Japan than in most Western countries. But here’s the catch: it’s much more difficult to ask for an explanation or reason.
If someone asks you out for a drink in Japan, an indirect “I have something else to do today” is taken as a decline to the invitation and no reasoning is asked for, whereas in Western countries, people feel compelled to have a justifiable reason for declining.
This is all linked to what sociologists call high context and low context culture — Japan is considered to be under the category of a high context culture, so a lot of the time, you don’t need to explain much because there’s an unspoken understanding between people. It all balls down to a unique Japanese custom called “Kūki wo yomu (空気を読む)”.
What exactly is it, why is it so important, and how do we begin practicing it? All these answers and more are just a scroll down away!
Kūki o Yomu: Reading the Air
Kūki wo yomu (空気を読む) translates to “reading the air”. It can be likened to the English phrase “reading between the lines”. You ought to be situationally aware and attentive to not only your own thoughts and feelings but also of the people around you — all without the need of expressing them aloud. It’s one of the most significant and fundamental aspects of Japan’s communication culture.
This Japanese custom is not only about social relations — it applies to business contexts as well. You’re expected to predict the consequences of actions and words when you’re interacting with other people, as well as realising your own social status.
This ability to read the air is not a genetic predisposition or something taught in Japanese schools or by parents — it’s a social trait. You pick it up spontaneously as you go along in life, socialise with others, communicate and most importantly, observe. It’s in the nature of Japanese people to observe their elders and people around them, then mimicking what they see.
It’s an important skill to have in Japanese society — it’s easier for you to make friends, get into a university and get a job. You’ll be more well-liked and fit into the local community easier.
Someone who’s not able to catch the real meaning of other people’s words is often called KY, an abbreviation of “kūki yomenai” to mean “one who can’t read the air”. If you’re unable to understand the environment you’re in, it can cost you — whether it’s ruining a relationship or blowing a huge business deal.
“Kūki o yomu” forces you to pay attention to signals people are putting out, more than usual, and to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.
Indirectness in Japanese Communication
Reading the air is also present in other cultures, like “reading the room” or “knowing your audience”, but Japanese people are far more sensitive to this custom.
There was a tweet that went viral in Japan back in 2019 about a businessman in Kyoto who met a potential client. The client complimented his watch, so the businessman started explaining the watch’s features. It took him a while to realise that the client didn’t care much about the watch, but more of the time it showed — he wanted the businessman to look at his watch to see the time and wrap up the conversation.
That one situation can sum up the indirectness factor in Japanese communication.
There’s no such thing as a direct answer in Japan, or at least in my experience. You don’t really get a straight-up “no” from anyone, whether it’s a casual or business setting — the politeness within the culture forbids them to. A “maybe” or “it’s possible” is used instead.
I’ll give you an example: I once asked someone if he could direct me to the nearest station, and his answer was “sore wa chotto…” (それはちょっと。。。) This directly translates to “that’s a bit…” but it actually holds the meaning of “that’s inconvenient for me” or “that’s a bit difficult for me to answer.” Basically, he was indirectly telling me no. The sentence was left hanging, but that’s the phrase often used in Japan — people assume you’re able to determine the rest of the sentence and read the situation.
There’s a collectivist culture in Japan that is probably one of the reasons for this ambiguity. The society prefers conformity over individualism — to directly communicate is like going against this status quo. So they avoid unpleasant interactions and situations to maintain social harmony, and to do that, everyone has to acquire the skill of reading the air.
Tatemae vs Honne
Tatemae (建前) is what one expresses in public and honne (本音) is what one truly feels. It links together with how Japanese communication is epitomised by implicitness and indirectness. People are socially obligated to respond according to tatemae, defined by social expectations and opinion, regardless if it contradicts their own honne.
That’s because importance is placed on demonstrating respect and saving face. If you deny a request directly by saying “no”, Japanese people believe that that’ll cause embarrassment and both the invitee and inviter will lose face. A “maybe” or “I’ll consider it” is the Japanese way of saying “no” — their indication of their honne.
“Hear One, Know Ten”
Something that’s linked closely to “kūki o yomu” is a concept called “ichi ieba jū wo shiru” (一言えば十を知る). This translates to “hear one, know ten”. Subtlety is pretty key when it comes to Japanese communication, so sometimes, social cues like facial expressions and body language aren’t as physically evident.
Japanese people believe that people should be so in tune with each other that the verbal words make up only 10% while the non-verbal ones communicate the remaining 90% — hear one, know ten. Whether it’s a twitch of the mouth or a discreet raise of the eyebrow can be telltale signs of disapproval or reproach.
If you decided to work in a Japanese company, be prepared to get as little guidelines as possible and barely any guidance or feedback — they expect you to already know by “reading the air”. And anyway, take brief communication as positive communication in the office.
What about you, can you read the air? Is your skill as extensive as the Japanese people? Whether it’s by observing people around you or educating yourself with the media, Japan’s high context culture does give you some plus points, especially if you’re planning to live in Japan.
I don’t know about you but I’ve noticed how popular those photo booth stickers are at the moment. When I first came to Japan, I was surprised at how popular they are in Japan, too.
Introducing “purikura”, the Japanese word for that exact thing we’re talking about. Before TikTok dances and Instagram filters became huge on the streets, purikura was top on the vain game.
So what exactly is it? How did it come about? Where can I find them? How do I take a purikura picture? All your answers are just a scroll down away!
What is Purikura?
So, what is purikura (プリクラ)? This word is a short form of “purinto kurabu” (プリント倶楽部), which means “print club”. Print club refers to the photo booths that you see all around Japan. It’s incredibly popular – all the local youths are crazy about it.
It’s the perfect activity with friends or on a date. It’s also the perfect souvenir because it’s a unique Japan activity.
You might be thinking, “it’s just a picture in a photo booth.” True, but purikura is more than just that. Worldwide, we have those official photo booths for ID photos. Sometimes, at events, you get photo booths that print pictures in film roll style. In Japan, it can be done any time, anywhere. You can customise it however you like.
While it functions the same way of any other photo booth, it’s more like a photo shoot. After you’ve taken your 5 consecutive pictures, you get to edit them. Everything from stickers and fonts to filters and frames. You’re in control of how it’s going to look when it’s printed.
The History of Purikura
So how did this fun activity come about? It all started in 1995 when the first ever print club machine was invented. The Tokyo-based game software company, Atlus, was the brains behind it. Originally, it was just a pose-and-print situation. You could only add frames around it.
Then comes other gaming companies like SEGA. They developed the print club machines to include so much more. This was also the time when the word “purikura” was tossed around.
In 1997, things really took off for the machines. An extremely popular Japanese band called SMAP featured purikura on local television. Amusement centers and arcades where they were found were filled with people getting their own purikura.
Nowadays, you get all sorts of purikura. Some machines have themes. I know people who prefer certain photo booths over others because they have better filters.
Where to Find Purikura
So you’re interested in taking some purikura of your own. Where do you go to get them? Where can you find them? The better question is, where can’t you find them? They’re quite literally everywhere. I don’t think you can go a day walking around any part of Japan without coming across a few purikura booths.
Almost every arcade in Japan has a floor dedicated to purikura machines. If you’re in Shibuya, you’ll likely spot them on the first floor. Sometimes, they’re bunched up in an area. So if you cross the street, you’ll see another group of purikura booths!
If you just want your picture taken to mark the occasion, any purikura will do. But if you’re like me and some of my friends, you want the best purikura booth. Venture around to find the one that has filters and edits you like best.
Styles of purikura booths include Harajuku-style kawaii (かわいい), princess style or hime (姫) and natural beauty. Trust me, there are others that are way more dramatic. Some places even have preparation areas for you to get ready!
How To: Purikura
It might be pretty straightforward for some people, but others might be intimidated by purikura if it’s their first time. Don’t worry, we got you covered. We’ll guide you through how to take purikura pictures!
Step 1: Posing for the pictures
It’s simple, really. A lot of these purikura booths suggest pose options for you. All you have to do is follow them. But you don’t have to if you don’t want to. You can go all out and pose any way you want.
There’s a timer for everything, so don’t take too long to pose. As soon as you walk in the booth, the timer begins. Usually you only have a couple of seconds before it flashes. Be quick!
You’ll usually have a green screen behind you so you can choose cute backdrops. I highly recommend to not wear anything close to the colour green.
Step 2: Edit the pictures
Don’t worry if you didn’t pose too well. You can edit yourself after the pictures have been taken. Remember when I said there’s a timer for everything? There’s a timer for editing, too. Don’t worry, it’s not a few seconds. It’s a few minutes.
But even then it’s not enough. There are so many ways to edit. You have to choose between hundreds of stickers, animal ears, time and day stamps, markers and borders. You’ll have all the privacy you need to edit behind the curtains, so don’t be shy to go crazy.
There’s really no one way to do it. That’s the best part about purikura editing.
Step 3: Print out the pictures
All that’s left to do is print. After the timer runs out, you get options on which layout you want your pictures to be printed in. Pick the one you like and wait a minute or two. It’ll be printed out and you’ll have your sticker pictures!
Usually, the booths print two copies. You can choose to cut it out and divide it among your friends or partner. If you join their rewards program, you can order a digital copy for free! This way, everyone has a version of the original.
Will you be trying purikura when you go to Japan? I have to admit that it’s one of my most favourite things to do in Japan. It’s cheap, fun and fast! On top of it all, you get to mark that special day with your friends or partner.
I don’t think I ever bowed before coming to Japan, but it’s such a huge thing in Japan. I mean, it’s one of the biggest aspects of the Japanese culture. Because there’s so much emphasis on respect, bowing is one of the main ways to convey that.
Now, I bow practically every day, whether it’s a slight nod to the staff member or an apologetic one to a passerby. There are a few types of bows in Japanese culture and they’re used for various purposes. For travellers and those planning to live in Japan alike, it’s best to know what they are and understand the nuances behind them.
In this article, we’re going to look at what to note when it comes to bowing in Japanese culture, and the three types of bows you can encounter!
Bowing in Japan
Bowing, known as ojigi (お辞儀) in Japanese, is not only a Japanese body language but it’s a crucial part of Japanese etiquette. Regardless of the occasion, both formal and informal settings, you have to bow and prepare to be bowed to. Depending on the situation, bowing can represent a couple of different things – greetings, gratitude and apologies are just to name a few.
There are a couple of things you should note about bowing. The first of them all is that this simple ritual should not be rushed. You can’t just walk and bow – it’s not really something you can do on-the-go. It’s considered rude if you do that and it’s best to stop before bowing.
When you do bow, be careful of your posture. A relaxed and casual one can be misunderstood as disrespectful or lack in interest. Try not to put more weight on one foot than the other or try to look forward at the person when you bow. Keep your arms in your pockets, behind your back, on your lap or with palms at the heart level together. Never have your arms hang lifelessly or crossed in front of your chest. Clenching of fists is also a strict no-no – you’re kind of telling the other person that you’re suppressing anger if you do that.
The last thing to note is that, when you are bowing, don’t talk. Conversation is not particularly acceptable when you bow. Surely, you can wait till your back is straightened up to continue your conversation.
As we briefly mentioned, there are three types of bowing and the varying degrees have different meanings. Let’s take a look at them.
A 15º bow, also known as eshaku (会釈), is when you’re slightly bowing. It’s kind of like a nod but rather than just doing with your head, you’re also moving your upper body. This kind of bowing translates to a casual greeting or salutation, and is used more informally than others like when you’re passing by someone at work or school as a casual greeting.
Eshaku can sometimes be used as an apology, too. The whole idea of this type of bow is that it’s extremely casual. You don’t use this as a normal type of greeting bow. You do see this being used in formal and business settings, but it usually follows a proper greeting as repetition.
To do this bow, you tilt forward of about 15º from your normal posture. I know we mentioned previously that it’s not okay to look at a person when you bow, but in eshaku, you maintain visual contact with the person you’re greeting. It’s better to have your hands together in front of you but it’s also fine if you don’t.
This next type of bow requires you to tilt your upper body and head to a 30º angle. Also known as keirei (敬礼), this bow translates to a respectful salutation and is used in formal settings to greet, thank or apologise to someone. When you need to communicate with someone respectfully, like a client, customer or boss, this is a gesture of respect in Japanese body language.
Unlike the previous type of bow, you don’t look at the person you’re bowing to – you look at the floor. Your arms should be kept at the sides of your body, front or back of the body in a respectful manner of covering one hand over the other. Make sure your back is straight and you’re not just tilting your head.
Keirei is used by staff members when they greet and bid farewell to customers at a shop or hotel. You’ll commonly see this type of bow when businessmen are thanking or apologising to their clients or higher-ups.
The most extreme bow of them all is the saikeirei (最敬礼): the 45º bow. On some occasions, it can be up to 60º! This type of bow is the most respectful salutation which can also be used to project deepest regrets in an apology.
If you’ve done something extremely bad at work, quickly stand up straight and then tilt your upper body to a 45º angle while keeping your head down. Make sure your hands are at your sides when you do this. Saikeirei is a formal style of bowing you most often see and do in a business setting.
I have to admit – I do see some people bow all the way down to a 90º angle. And a lot of the time, they’re on the phone on the streets and still bowing even though the other person couldn’t see them. They must be sincerely sorry for what they have done.
Bowing is such an important custom in Japan, and practicing it while in the country is the best way to understand this tradition. You’re not only visually showing your respect for the person you’re bowing to, but you’re also deepening your comprehension of this characteristic of the Japanese culture. So, the next time you messed up at work, go all out with the saiekeirei to your boss!
You can find island heaven in the southernmost part of Japan. Okinawa is where locals escape the city life of the mainland and foreign tourists go for a taste of paradise.
The sun, sand and sea aren’t the only things that make the island so great. Okinawa has its own unique language that makes the heart of its culture. And surprisingly, it’s not your average Japanese! No matter how good your Nihongo is, you’re going to struggle a bit with the Okinawan language. Let’s get you started with a few essential Okinawan words and phrases. Here’s a list of them to get you through day-to-day interactions and a few unique ones!
We know that in Japanese, to say “welcome”, it’s “youkoso” (ようこそ). While the Okinawans can still understand that, they have a different way of greeting. In Okinawan language, it’s “mensore” (めんそーれー). It’s similar to how we use “aloha”. If you are lucky enough to visit Okinawa, you’ll be hearing a lot of this. The locals say this to welcome tourists to their islands.
If you want to greet an Okinawan, say “haisai” (はいさい). This can mean “good day”, “good morning” or “good afternoon”. It’s used as a universal greeting for all day round. It’s kind of like “konnichiwa” (こんにちは).
The feminine version to this is “haitai” (はいたい). It has a more polite and softer tone to the greeting.
Ganjuu yami? (頑丈やみ)
Another greeting in the Okinawan language is “ganjuu yami?” (頑丈やみ?) This can be translated as “how are you?” This is the informal way of this greeting. If you want to greet someone formally, you change it to “ganjuu yaibiimi?” (頑丈やいびーみ?)
This next one is one I like personally. To say “long time no see” or “it’s been a while”, say “nageesayaa” (長ーさやー). It’s kind of like the equivalent of the Japanese “hisashiburi” (久しぶり).
There are a few ways to say this. The rest aren’t as common, but here’s a list of them: Wuganduu saibiitan (拝ん遠さいびーたん) Wuganduu sanu (拝ん遠さぬ) Wuganduusa (拝ん遠ーさ) Wugandii saibiiyaa (拝ん遠さいびーやー) Miiduu sanyaa (見ー遠さんやー) Miiduu saibiinyaa (見ー遠さいびーんやー)
Hajimiti wuganabira (初みてぃ拝なびら)
When you meet a new Okinawan person and want to say “please to meet you”, you can say this phrase. “Hajimiti wagunabira” (初みてぃ拝なびら) is kind of like the Japanese “hajimemashite” (初めまして). If you look closely, it kind of sounds the same. They both use the same kanji in the beginning.
This next one is important. If you did something wrong and want to apologise, say “wassaibiin” (悪さいびーん). This is how you say “sorry” in the Okinawan language. You can definitely say “sumimasen” (すみません) or “gomennasai” (ごめんなさい), but how about trying this new phrase? It might be even more sincere if it’s in their own language.
We have “cheers”, “salute” and “kanpai” (乾杯), and so many more worldwide. In Okinawa, you say “karii” (かりー) when raising a glass and toasting. Don’t forget to do this before taking a swig of your refreshing, cold Orion beer!
Nifee Debiru (御拝でーびーる)
Now, how do you thank someone in Okinawa? Sure, you can say “thank you” or “arigatou” (ありがとう). But in Okinawan language, it’s “niffee debiru” (御拝でーびーる). It’s how you show appreciation to someone. Sometimes, they phrase is followed by “ippee”. It’s like the extension of “very much” to make “thank you very much”.
Some say that back in the 60s, thanking someone was “nihee debiru” instead. Okinawan language is ever-evolving.
“Wakayabiran” (分かやびらん) is useful because it means “I don’t understand”. When I was in Okinawa, I sometimes couldn’t understand what they were saying. So, I used this phrase a lot! It’s similar to “wakarimasen” (分かりません). They’re even using the same kanji!
Kwachii sabitan (くぁちいさびたん)
After a meal, you’d want to show your appreciation for the delicious meal. In Japanese, you’d say “gochisousamadeshita” (ご馳走様でした). In the Okinawan language, it’s “kwachii sabitan”. They’ll be even more convinced you loved the food now that you express it in their language!
Okinawan people are known as uchinanchu. This describes those who are born in Okinawa as Okinawan natives. Some said the name came from the word “Okinawa” itself. “Okinawa” became “okina”, which then changed into “uchina”.
Okinawan people refer to themselves as uchinanchu. They refer to people from mainland Japan as “naichi”.
So, uchinanchu is the people. The Okinawan language is then ”uchinaaguchi”. Uchinaaguchi compromises words and phrases used during the Ryukyu Kingdom. There are influences of various types of dialect including Yaeyama and Miyako dialects.
Back in the day, uchinaaguchi had the name of “hogan” instead, to refer to the Okinawan language.
This next phrase has the meaning of “don’t worry, it’ll be alright”. Nankurunaisa (なんくるないさ) symbolises the relaxed vibes of Okinawan people. The phrase has a heavier connotation than that. It’s not really used in daily conversation as much as “daijoubu” (大丈夫).
It’s a way of expressing optimism and it was part of the phrase “makuto soke nankurunaisa”. That phrase has the same meaning as the English proverb “Man proposes, God disposes”. If someone does their best and is done right, then something will come of it.
To describe something beautiful and gorgeous, you can say it as “churasan” (美さん). It’s a word often used in Okinawa. You can see many things described with the adjective “chura”. For example, “chura sandal” is the name of a type of sandal that fused the words “churasan” and “sandal”.
It uses the same kanji as “utsukushii” (美しい).
Last but not least, we have “deeji” (でーじ). This word is like the word “very”. It’s used the same way as “meccha” (めっちゃ) and “totemo” (とても).
You can one-up your game by using “shini”. It’s a step above “deeji”. It’s like saying “extremely”.
With these essential Okinawan words and phrases, you’ve already got your foot in the door. The only way is up from here. Now, when you go to Okinawa, you can start to practice using these words with the Okinawan natives!
It’s no secret that Japanese culture is rich and abundant. When we visit the country, it’s like stepping into a whole new universe. That includes restaurants and the various types of seatings available.
What do you notice when you walk past the noren (暖簾) curtains at the restaurant entrance? You might notice a few seating arrangements that aren’t available in your home country. Don’t panic yet. Here’s a list of the most common types of seatings you can find at restaurants in Japan!
The most common type of seating arrangement you can find in Japan is the counter seating. It’s known as “kaunta seki” (カウンター席) in Japanese. You’ll find counter seats in various types of restaurants. Both formal and informal dining have them. It’s not exclusive to one or the other.
You get them at fast food chains like ramen shops (ラーメン屋, ramen shop) and izakaya (居酒屋, Japanese gastropub). More formal restaurants include kappo (割烹) type restaurants. This is a kind of dining where the chef crafts your dishes right in front of you.
These counter seatings are effective in a few ways. The first is to accomodate more individual diners, which is common in Japan. Restaurants don’t have to set up entire tables. This saves space as well. Another way is making high-class dining establishments more informal in atmosphere. On top of kappo cuisine, there’s obanzai ryori (おばんざい料理). This type of cuisine offers home-style food in a relaxed atmosphere. Customers are usually seated at counter tables.
The counter seating gives the opportunity for customers to chat with the chef. That’s one of the best ways to get insights about Japanese cuisine and culture!
Moving on, we have the table seating. In Japanese, you can say it as “teburu seki” (テーブル席).This is a type of seating that’s influenced by the West. And as the name suggests, you’re going to sit at a normal table. Table seating is common in both casual and formal restaurants.
And it’s your standard table seating arrangement. Usually, the staff member will ask the number of people dining in at the restaurant entrance. The staff member will show you to your table afterwards. If the restaurant offers both counter and table seating, they might give you the option to choose.
In some restaurants, you can find a big central table that’s shared by a few different groups of people. I have never dined at a shared table before. But I heard it’s customary to acknowledge the other diners with a nod before sitting down.
Booth seating (Boosuseki)
https://unsplash.com/photos/3hdPTXwI-lc Our next type of seating is also influenced by the West, and that is booth seating. It’s like those diner seats. In Japanese, it’s called “boosu seki” (ブース席). With this type of seating arrangement, you get a normal table with benches on either side of it.
Booth seating arrangement is common in casual dining places like family restaurants (ファミレス). Some izakayas and stalls offer booth seating, too. Most of the time, Restaurants that specialise in group dining will have booth seating. Yakiniku (焼肉) barbecue or shabu shabu (しゃぶしゃぶ) restaurants definitely have them. That’s when everyone at the table is sharing a single grill or pot in the middle of the table.
Recessed Floor Seating (Horigotatsu)
The next type of seating in Japan is the horigotatsu (掘り炬燵). This is a traditional type of seating arrangement where the table is low to the ground. The floor beneath it is lower than the floor level so people can have their legs there. Horigotatsu seating can be traditional or modernised to cater to the foreign tourists. You can experience sitting on a tatami area without having to cross your legs. It’s like sitting on a chair!
Most of the time, you can get horigotatsu seating arrangements in Japanese restaurants. Those establishments for group dining will have them more than the others.
This next type of seating features a heated table. Kotatsu (こたつ) is also used in Japanese homes but also in restaurant. There’s electric heating built into the bottom of the table. Not only that, you’ll be able to find a special type of quilt cover over the table frame. This is so the heat stays beneath the table to warm your legs.
You won’t be eating on the quilt covers, don’t worry. There’s usually a tabletop placed on top of the quilt cover as a surface for eating and drinking. This type of seating was common back in the days before the development of other types of heating. Nowadays, this is less common in homes. There are still some restaurants that offer kotatsu for a unique local experience.
We mentioned tatami seating earlier. In Japanese, it’s called zashiki (座敷). This is a traditional type of seating arrangement that features a low table on top of tatami flooring. You’ll get this type of arrangement in more traditional Japanese restaurants.
Tatami seating is available in open dining and private dining rooms. When dining at a tatami seating, you’re expected to take off your shoes before stepping onto the tatami. It’s customary to place the shoes facing away from the tatami, too. This is so that when you do put your shoes back on, it’s easier. This type of seating arrangement is one of the most authentic Japanese dining experiences.
Last but not least, there’s the private room seating. We mentioned in the tatami seating section. It’s called “koshitsu” (個室) in Japanese. You can find private room seating in both traditional and Westernised restaurants.
This type of seating arrangement is best for gatherings, business dinners and parties. The most common place you can find koshitsu is at an izakaya. As a group of people can get rather loud and noisy. The private room seating arrangement is good for privacy for the group without disturbing the other guests at the restaurant. A fun fact to note is that the seat of honour at this type of seating arrangement is the one furthest away from the door!
At Japanese restaurants, you get a mix of familiarity and authenticity. There are some seating arrangements which you can only experience in Japan. Sit on tatami while slurping down a bowl of noodles and much on sushi bites!
We know Tokyo as the capital city of Japan. The bright, neon-lit city is the first image that pops in our head at the mention of the country’s modern vibes. But at the mention of authentic Japan and Japanese culture, Kyoto is where we think of. These are the reputations of the two cities. But did you know, Tokyo wasn’t always the capital city? Back in the day, Kyoto was the one that held the title. So why was there a switch from Kyoto to Tokyo as the capital city of Japan? We have the answers you’re looking for.
Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan
Kyoto wasn’t called Kyoto back in the day. Just like other Japanese cities, it had a few names. One of it was “Heian-kyo” (平安京). This translates to “metropolis of peace or seat” in Japanese. Another name for Kyoto was “Saikyo” (西京), which means Western capital.
Originally, Kyoto only consisted of the Imperial Palace and the areas surrounding it. But now, as we know it, it’s grown much bigger. Some believe that Kyoto’s architecture was designed to resemble Xi’an City during the Tang Dynasty. The grid-like streets and rectangular enclosures were hints of that.
Kyoto was the capital city of Japan for more than a millennium, after its inception in 794AD. It’s one of the oldest cities of Japan, after all, so it only made sense that leaders have settled down there and created history. In the 8th century, Emperor Kanmu was the one that decided Kyoto to be the capital. Rulers after him would have the city as the seat of the Imperial Court for centuries, until the 19th century. Kyoto was gradually losing its prominence as an administrate centre. A change was required.
How the oligarchy influenced the change
Now, we’re not going to delve deep into history. We’re going to just touch on it. The Tokugawa Shogunate, as we know, was the last feudal Japanese military government. They reigned from 1600 to 1969. In the early years, then-Edo now-Tokyo was the spot for their military government. The Tokugawa Shogunate became so powerful to the extent that the Emperor was below them.
The Meiji Restoration got back the Emperor’s position in politics and culture. In 1968, the Tokugawa Shogunate was no more. At the time, the ruling emperor was merely 15, so the power was given to the oligarchs. They decided to stay in Edo instead of going back to the then-capital city Kyoto because of its convenient location and easy access to the West for trade. Edo was given a new name: Tokyo, the “Eastern Capital”.
Edo, from village to castle town
The name “Edo” means “estuary”. It was originally a mere village during the Kamakura Period (1185 to 1333). The village’s location was perfect for the establishment of headquarters. It had access to busy lands and sea routes. When the Tokugawa Shogunate established in Edo, it was the beginning of Edo’s rapid growth. Edo Castle became their base, with moats and bridges surrounding it. By 1720s, Edo’s population drastically boomed and had a major economic growth.
And we skip to today. The emperor wasn’t the one that decided the change of capital city to Tokyo, but this incident marks a crucial time in Japan’s history. It was inevitable that Tokyo became the main area for trade due to its accessibility. From there, technology, Western clothing and architecture began to influence the city. Just like how Kyoto grew in size, so did Tokyo to include its surrounding regions.
Capital city: Kyoto or Tokyo?
Now, Kyoto is still known as the “Western Capital” and Tokyo as the “Eastern Capital”. The move of capital city to Tokyo affected Kyoto deeply, but now the city’s thriving with its own unique personality that contrasts that of Tokyo. Kyoto will always be a symbol of old Japan, and Tokyo’s a symbol of the country’s evolution and development. Kyoto will always be thought of as the heart of Japan for it’s storied and important history.
Interesting is an underrated way to describe Japanese culture. We all know it’s a rich culture full of customs and beliefs far different from ours. No matter how much we read up on it, there’s always going to be another fact popping up that we didn’t know about before.
And among these cultural facts, there’s a fair share of them that can be considered weird and strange. If you’ve visited Japan, you would’ve experienced some things that are just uniquely Japanese. Here, we’re going to look at 16 weird and strange cultural facts of the Japanese culture.
1. Vending machines in Japan sell adult toys
Vending machines are big in Japan. There are about 5 million of them in Japan alone! While the most common product offered at these vending machines is beverages, don’t be surprised if you come across ones offering unusual products…like adult toys.
When the first adult toy vending machine opened in Sapporo City in Hokkaido, the news went viral. Nowadays, it’s not as uncommon as when it first popped up. There are even gachapons (ガチャポン) similar to these vending machines. Walk down the streets of Shibuya and you’ll see a few amongst the cartoon keychains and souvenir ones.
2. Kids had epileptic seizures from a Pokemon episode
Pokemon was big in a lot of people’s childhoods. This well-loved anime series is not only popular in Japan but also internationally. Before the show made it to the US, back in 1997, an episode of Pokemon induced epileptic seizures in 685 children. They were rushed to hospitals all around Japan.
The episode is called Dennō Senshi Porygon. It had intense flashing red and blue strobe lights that went at a rate of 12 flashes per second. These lighting effects are more common in older anime. However, it went on for almost 6 seconds, long enough to trigger photosensitive epilepsy in some children. There were reports of other kids experiencing milder symptoms like temporary blindness, seizures and nausea.
3. Phones made in Japan are waterproof
If you’ve bought a phone in Japan before, the first thing you’d notice is that the shutter sound for taking photos can’t be turned off. That’s a unique feature only in Japan. Another one is that almost all phones sold here are waterproof. This has been the case for over a decade now.
Some people link this to the bathing culture in Japan. It’s common for Japanese people to soak in bathtubs after a long day’s work and use their phones while at it. The waterproof function might be just in case phones slip into the water.
4. Indoor smoking is made illegal only recently
Not too long ago, smoking indoors was quite the norm. Whether it was in a cafe, bar or restaurant, there were designated areas for smokers (kitsuen, 喫煙). This was a huge part of Japanese culture.
In April 2020, there was a ban on smoking indoors going around in Japan, starting with a city-wide ban in Tokyo. The response has been 50-50. Some are against it as they claim it’s part of their culture, and others strongly support this decision to increase non-smoking areas.
5. Before 2015, late-night dancing was illegal
Japan’s capital city Tokyo is known for its entertaining late-night nightlife in bars, pubs and clubs. Little did you know that, not too long ago, late-night dancing was made illegal. Before 2015, you’re not allowed to dance in areas that didn’t have a dance license past midnight.
This was imposed after World War II to regular prostitution since dance halls were popular destinations for that. In the early 21st century, there was a spike in celebrity-related drug busts. There was a reinforcement of the ban then. Now, you’re allowed to dance till the sun comes up. There’s new legislation which allows clubs to operate 24 hours. Clubss are able to do that as long as they have brighter lighting than 10 lux.
6. There are more adult diapers sold than baby diapers
Japan’s facing a rapidly ageing population. More than a quarter of the country’s population is over the age of 65. Birth rates are at an ultimate low. Research shows that the production of adult diapers is more than baby diapers. The ageing population is likely the cause for this.
7. There’s a festival dedicated to the phallus
Japanese people will never say no to a festival. There’s probably a festival every other weekend throughout the year. There’s even a festival for the phallus, called Kanamara Matsuri (かなまら祭り). This literally translates to “Festival of the Steel Phallus”. Everything in the festival is shaped as the phallus, from floats to snacks. This Shinto festival is celebrated in Kawasaki City on the first Sunday of April every year.
An old Shinto legend has it that a demon hid in the private parts of a goddess. The demon bit off two of her suitor’s phallus on their wedding night. Because of those incidents, a blacksmith created an iron phallus that broke the demon’s teeth.
The shrine associated with this festival is a haven for prostitutes and those suffering from STDs. They seek protection and pray here. Others also pray for marriage and fertility. Nowadays, this festival is an LGBTQ-friendly event that promotes inclusiveness. Money that’s raised from this festival is donated to HIV research.
8. Sumos compete to make the other baby cry first
Most of us know about sumo wrestling. But do you know about sumos carrying babies and trying to make their opponent’s baby cry first? This festival is called Naki Sumo Baby Crying Festival. This 400-year-old occasion takes place every April in Sensoji Temple, Tokyo.
Parents bring their children to the festival and sumos will carry them on stage and make them cry by making scary faces, yelling or wearing a scary mask. It’s believed that making a baby wail can chase off demons lurking around. Some believe that the best crier is blessed with a healthy, long life.
9. A lot more paper is used to print manga than make toilet paper
The Japanese comic (manga, 漫画) is, without a doubt, extremely popular in Japan. It’s used as comic strips in magazines back in the Meiji Era to encourage literacy in the youngsters. Because of the extreme use, they’re printed more than toilet papers are made. The hi-tech, futuristic bidet toilets also play a part in the lack of toilet paper usage.
10. The original geishas were men
Whether you’ve been to the ancient capital city Kyoto or seen pictures of it, you’ve definitely heard of geisha (芸者). A geisha is a refined woman with skilled in the traditional Japanese performing arts. They’re usually pictures of dolled-up Japanese ladies dressed in luxurious kimono (着物).
But did you know that the original geishas weren’t women; they were men. Taikomochi (太鼓持) were male entertainers who performed for feudal lords in the 1730s. They’re like the jesters of the West. 8 years later women would emerge as “odoriko” (踊り子) and shamisen players. It wasn’t until 1751 that female geishas became the talk of the people.
11. Crooked teeth are cute
Some of us have spent thousands of dollars on braces and dental care to get our teeth straightened. For the Japanese, they wouldn’t do that. Because crooked teeth are considered cute among people. While it’s always been the case, it’s becoming a big trend recently.
In fact, some dental clinics in Japan are offering their customers a crooked smile. This involves glueing artificial (or permanent) canines to the customer’s real teeth.
12. Adult adoption
It’s the norm to adopt kids when they’re young, but in Japan, it’s the opposite. Adopting adults is a bigger practice than adopting kids, and it’s common in families with no children. This usually happens when a Japanese family needs an heir for their business or fortune.
Sometimes, this is also used as an alternative to the illegalisation of same-sex marriage.
13. Japanese students clean their own classrooms
Having janitors and cleaners at school is common in most countries. In Japan, these aren’t jobs offered in high school and universities. The school students are the ones that take on the role. Japanese students clean their own classrooms as part of their school day. This also includes bathrooms, hallways and other public facilities.
14. Social withdrawal is common among Japanese
There are approximately 700,000 Japanese people that live in social isolation. This is known as hikikomori (引きこもり) in Japanese. Adults are still living in their parent’s house or their own houses, but don’t go to work or hang out with friends.
It’s said that some people can be socially withdrawn for up to 20 years. The most common cause of hikikomori is the high expectations of Japanese society.
15. The number 4 is unlucky
In Japanese, the number 4 is pronounced as “shi” which is the same as the Japanese word for “death” (死). It’s considered as an unlucky number. Some other countries in Asia also have similar beliefs. If you can’t find floor number 4 in apartment buildings, hotels and malls, don’t be surprised. This is probably the reason why.
16. Black cats are lucky
Contrary to popular belief, black cats are lucky according to the Japanese. In Japanese culture, instead of bringing bad luck, black cats bring good luck. You’ll see them in the shape of the beckoning cat, or known as maneki neko (招き猫). They’re believed to bring wealth and prosperity.
Which fact is the weirdest?
Just as how it is enriching, Japanese culture can also be pretty strange. Which one of these 16 cultural facts did you find the weirdest? There’s always something new you can learn about a culture, whether it’s an enlightening one or one that makes you think twice.
Working is a chore. Working in a foreign country like Japan sounds exciting. I bet every foreigner who’s ever worked in Japan thought that at first. What they’re thinking now is slightly different…
There’s a fantasy of working life in Japan, and it’s quite the opposite of the reality. I’m not trying to scare you away from finding a job here. But it’s best to know a few things before you commit a few years to a new job in a foreign country.
In this article, we’re going to look at 3 fantasies in comparison with their realities.
Fantasy: After-work fun
Who doesn’t like a couple of drinks after work? A normal job takes up five days a week, leaving weekends and weekday evenings for leisure. You’ve got to make the most of your free time out of work. Especially if you’re thinking about working in a city like Tokyo, you might be expecting a couple of pints of beer after a long day of hard work.
There is some truth in that. Going for rounds of drinks with colleagues is actually part of the work culture here. It’s a way to bond with your coworkers. When you build stronger relationships, Japanese people believe that the workflow will be more effective.
If your boss joins you at the after-work drinking as well, that’s when it gets even more fun. That means that the boss will pay. Free drinks for all!
Reality: Overtime work
Realistically, you’re not going to be able to drink every night. In fact, you might not even be able to do much at night, other than sleeping. The harsh reality is that Japan has a very tough working culture. Everyone basically works overtime. Staying overtime is sometimes required, even though it’s not stated in any contract or written document. It’s an unspoken rule. You’d have to ‘read the air’ to find out.
Depending on your company, you might not even get paid for the overtime hours (so check before signing any contracts).
In Japanese work etiquette, you don’t leave before the boss. If the boss decides to stay till 10PM, everyone else is expected to stay till 10:30PM. That’s just how it is. Let’s hope your boss doesn’t like overtime as much!
However, I’ve heard from some friends who are not required to work overtime and it’s fine with their company. So it’s not a hard-and-fast rule.
If you’ve seen or heard about Japan, you might’ve heard about their crazy fashion and perspective. Tokyo’s Harajuku neighbourhood is an outlet for the locals to express themselves and their ideas any way they like. No judgement whatsoever.
And from my own experience, this expressiveness and individualism can go beyond the neighbourhood. You see locals going out of the box in other cities, too. Many people travel to Japan to witness this unique culture for themselves. Some want the opportunity to spread their wings as well.
To be honest, it was one of my reasons for going to Japan, too. I needed to stretch my legs a bit. I wanted to explore my individuality.
While you can definitely explore it during your free time, it’s not at all like that at work. The work life in Japan, and generally the cultural norm, is uniformity. When it comes to dressing, you have to look like everyone else. The dress code has to be followed.
And it doesn’t just stop at appearance. It includes other aspects of work life. There are ways of doing things in terms of how you speak, act and react in the office. The work etiquette has a set of rules in its system, and it has to be abided by.
My personal experience with working for a Japanese company wasn’t at all like that, though. I had a bit more freedom when it comes to what I wear and how I speak. At the end of the day, it really depends on how traditional or modern the company you’re with is.
Fantasy: Culture enriching
Moving to a new country is exciting. You’re going to be in a different environment. Everything is new. You’re going to be immersed in a foreign culture. It’s going to be like one long vacation.
On my days off where I go on day trips and sightseeing spots, the culturally enriching factor kicks in. There’s always something new to discover about Japan and its culture. One part of the country can have various cultural facts compared to another. Take Osaka and Tokyo, for example. The two are so similar, yet dramatically different in so many ways.
Reality: Culture shock
After the holiday mood fades away, you’ll soon realise that everyday life involves stress and mundane routines. Even in a different country, you can’t avoid that. When you work in Japan, you’ll also discover aspects about the Japanese working culture – both good and bad.
While in some countries, you don’t have to keep up with formalities in the office. When you work in Japan, they’re very strict on that. It also comes hand in hand with hierarchy. Yup, there’s work hierarchy culture here.
And it doesn’t mean age. Someone five years younger than you can have a higher status. Someone who enters the company later than you can be your boss. Regardless, you’ll have to speak to them like how you would an elderly: with respect and keigo (敬語).
Working Life in Japan
Expect big changes when you move your life to Japan, especially if you’re planning to work here. Even with these three comparisons, working life in Japan is not all bad. There are perks and advantages. And not all companies are going to be the same. At the end of the day, you’re going to experience things you’ll never be able to back in your own country. So take a leap of faith and start applying!
If you don’t know it yet, Japan is a high context culture. This means the people rely on unspoken words and mutual understanding when communicating. If you’re just starting your life in Japan or just learning about Japanese culture, it can get quite confusing. Don’t worry, there area few common body gestures to start you off.
They’re not your average body gestures that we know. Sometimes, Japanese body gestures can be quite foreign to the rest of us. So save yourself the miscommunication and learn about the top 8 most common ones you should know while learning Japanese!
1. X Signs
This first one is most commonly used to avoid misunderstandings between locals and foreigners. There are a few X signs in Japanese body language. The first one is when the X figure is created using arms. Usually, the arms are crossed in front of the body to get a big giant X. This means “no” and letting you know that something is not allowed. If a guard walks up to you and gives you this X sign with his arms, he’s probably letting you know that you can’t go in somewhere.
The second type of X sign is a small X figure using the fingers. This isn’t a subtle way to say no. In fact, this has a whole new meaning. This small X sign is actually asking for the bill. So if you’re trying to get your waiter’s attention for the check, give them this small X sign.
2. O Signs
This next one is the O sign. Similar to the X sign, there are two types of O signs. The first one is using the arms. The arms are shaped in the O figure over the head, linking to each other. This translates to approval. If that guard gives you this O sign instead of the X sign, he’s saying you’re allowed in somewhere.
The second O sign is using the fingers. You guessed it – it’s not a subtle way to say okay. If you join your thumb with other fingers to make the O figure, you’re gesturing the word “money”.
3. Arms Folded
This next body gesture is one more familiar to us, but with a different meaning. Sometimes, during work meetings, you might see your clients or higher ups having their arms folded. Don’t worry, they’re not disinterested. It’s the opposite meaning. They’re so interested that they’re thinking long and hard about something. So if you see someone crossing their arms when you’re talking to them, they’re not being rude. They’re just thinking.
4. Hand Behind the Head
The hand behind the head has a few different interpretations. You’ve probably seen it if you’ve watched anime or Japanese drama. Some understand it as a way to say no, some understand it as a reaction to embarrassment. If you’ve done something embarrassing and someone caught you doing it, it’s a natural reaction to have one hand behind the head. Like, “oops, I tripped”.
In another situation where this body language is used is if someone wants to say no, but is too polite to. If your friend isn’t free on the day you ask them out, they might have this body gesture while saying “um” or “chotto…”
In Japanese culture, pointing is considered rude. You shouldn’t point at others, but you can point at places and objects. You can point to yourself, but this is where the Japanese body gesture comes in. To point to yourself, you point to your nose. Kick that habit of pointing to your chest when referring to yourself and point to your nose when you’re in Japan!
6. Palms Together
If you’ve been to temples and shrines in Japan, you’ve probably seen this body gesture. This is a common one: palms pressed together in front of the chest. It’s kind of like a praying position. When Japanese people are praying at temples and shrines, they’ll do this gesture. But it also has another meaning: asking for help. If someone wants to ask for your help, they would do this gesture along with saying “please” or “onegaishimasu” (お願いします).
One some occasions, this can be used together with an apology to express your sincerity.
7. The Waving Hand
One hand gesture that’s pretty unique to Japanese culture is a wave with the palm faced downwards and moving back and forth. It’s kind of like the beckoning cat (maneki neko, 招き猫). If someone does this gesture to you, it’s not to shoo you away. Rather, it’s beckoning you to come closer.
If someone’s doing the same waving motion but with their hand moving up and down in front of their face, like as if they’ve smelt something bad, the meaning changes. This is another way of saying no, but more for declining a compliment. If you compliment your Japanese pal and she goes “sonna koto nai” (そんなことない), this gesture will usually accompany it.
8. The Chopping Hand
Don’t be surprised if a stranger starts chopping the air with their hands. This is a way of saying “excuse me, I’m coming through”. The most common example is when you’re in a crowded train, and someone wants to get off. They’ll place their chopping hand (the palm facing the side) in front of them to make their way through the crowd.
Sometimes, the chopping hand can be used to interrupt a conversation.
I have friends who would interrupt a conversation with this exact motion – I’ll be talking with another person and someone would come in between us, chopping the air and pause, before continuing to join the conversation.
Now you’re 8 gestures closer to fully understanding the high context culture of Japan. The thing is, if you really don’t know what your Japanese friend is trying to say, just ask! There’s definitely no harm in asking for an explanation, but it might be riskier to assume what they’re trying to say.
Japan has such a unique culture. Even after over a century of opening the country up to the rest of the world, there are still some aspects of Japanese culture that are still intriguing to the rest of the world. Culture holds a strong significance in Japan’s identity, and that’s what makes the country so great.
Whether you’ve travelled to this island nation or not, there are always a few culture facts you’ve missed out. Here are 10 Japanese culture facts that will blow your mind!
1. Gambling is illegal
Sorry, gamblers, but gambling is illegal here in Japan! Or at least most forms of gambling are. There are a few exceptions to this law and that includes betting on horse racing and specific motorsports. Public sports, lottery and football betting are possible, but they are under a different set of special laws.
But there’s a bright side: pachinko. This game is similar to gambling, but it’s not officially gambling. Pachinko is a type of pinball-like slot machine. You buy the balls, slot them into the machine, and the balls you win can be exchanged for tokens and prizes. Those can be exchanged for money. Pachinko itself has a very shady feel in popular media that makes it equated to playing the slot machines and other things that feed addicition.
However, since 2018, casino operators have been bidding for legal licenses to operate in some of Japan’s resorts. So, gambling could be expanding in Japan in the near future.
2. People are paid to push others into trains
This is one Japanese culture fact that I had the (dis)pleasure of experiencing. During rush hours, the train platforms (電車ホーム)get jam-packed with commuters. More than half of Tokyo’s population uses public transportation, and this city is the most populated in the world! Trains operate more than 100% overcapacity.
So instead of increasing the frequency of trains, the city hires people to push other people into the trains! You’re packed like sardines in a can.
3. Slurping is polite
I’ve been taught that making any noise when eating is rude. In Japan, it’s the opposite when it comes to slurping your noodles. In fact, you’re actually encouraged. When you slurp your noodles in Japan, it’s a sign that you’re enjoying your dish. This is seen as a way to compliment the cook.
Back in the day, Japanese people slurp their noodles so that they can eat their noodles while it’s still hot. You can still savour the flavours without wasting any time. Over time, it’s become a crucial dining etiquette in Japanese culture.
4. Eating alone is common
In a lot of countries, eating alone inside or outside might get you some strange looks. In Japan, it’s completely normal. It’s common to eat alone. In fact, it’s so common that a number of restaurants in Japan offer single-seating areas like at the counter or just a table for one. I think I’ve benefited from this Japanese culture fact. Now, I don’t mind eating alone. I actually enjoy it!
5. Entrance slippers are a sign to take off your shoes
In some countries, wearing your shoes into the house is acceptable. In Japan, it’s a big no-no. Never wear your outdoor shoes into homes, regardless of whose home you’re entering. In some public areas, you’re required to take off your shoes, too.
In that case, keep a lookout for slippers at the entrance. If you’re going to places like temples, shrines, restaurants and ryokans (旅館), there’s a chance you have to take them off. Leave your outdoor shoes at the entryway, which is usually the space before the step above to the grounds of the building.
6. You are a year older based on the traditional Japanese age system
A Japanese culture fact that I found interesting is that everyone is a year older when they’re born. This is known as kazoedoshi (数え年), which means “counted years”. You age a year older on New Year’s Day. This traditional system was still commonly used until the 1950s, when the modern age system (manenrei, 満年齢) was adopted by more people.
The manenrei law was actually passed in 1902, but the traditional age system was so common for decades past that!
7. You can’t be fat
Some say it’s a myth, but it’s actually a Japanese culture fact. Despite having overweight sumo wrestlers in Japan, it’s not encouraged for others to be fat. In 2008, there was a law that passed called the Metabo Law, which is aimed to reduce the obesity rate and other metabolic disorders in the country.
People between the ages of 40 and 74 have their waist sizes measured annually. But contrary to that, there’s no legal punishment for being overweight, just suggestions from their physical to seek medical attention about potential obesity.
If your measurements are not below 33.5 inches for men and 35.4 inches for women (between the ages of 40 and 74), then you’ll be referred on for “lifestyle intervention”. This is where you’ll get advice from professionals regarding nutritional diet and exercise. So you won’t be fined for being fat. You’ll just have to live a healthier lifestyle.
Even though it’s a very restrictive and appearance based judgement, celebrities and others have combated fat shaming and promoted healthy body acceptance in recent years and progress is being made.
8. Eating, drinking and smoking while walking is rude
I admit I’m one to go against this culture fact every now and then. It’s quite normal to be sipping coffee while walking, or munching on a bag of nuts. In Japan, walking while eating or drinking is considered rude and discouraged.
It’s seen as low-class behavior. If you buy a drink from a vending machine or a snack from the konbini (コンビニ), you’re expected to stand nearby the machine or store and finish your food.
It’s the same with smoking. Nowadays, there are designated smoking areas in public spaces, so if you’re in need of a puff, look out for markings on the floor for them.
9. Christmas is a romantic holiday
Christmas isn’t as huge in Japan as it is in other Western countries. In Japan, only 2% of the population are Christians. However, the Japanese do celebrate this holiday with decorations and events, but it’s more of a romantic holiday.
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are reserved for couples to have a date night, fancy dinner and giving special gifts to each other. It’s kind of like Valentine’s Day.
10. Taking power naps on the job is encouraged
I know for many that if they were to fall asleep at their jobs, they’d get fired. In Japan, it’s okay to take a power nap or two in between work. This is a Japanese culture fact that’s new to a lot of us, isn’t it? Naps are encouraged because the Japanese believe that this can improve your work performance and speed. It’s also a sign that you’ve been working hard!
Which Japanese culture fact is most surprising?
So, which of these Japanese culture facts surprised you the most? Which ones are you most excited to witness or experience for yourself? Japanese culture defines Japan. It’s amazing to see a few of them from centuries or decades past still being practiced to this day. As you learn the language your understanding of Japanese culture will come naturally. Get a subscription for Nihongo Master and start your journey to Japanese fluency today!