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

Credit: Marcus Shenn on Flickr Creative Commons

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

Credit: Magalie L’Abbe on Flickr Creative Commons

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

Credit: Adrian Clark on Flickr Creative Commons

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

Tow people's feet with Christmas socks.

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

A man napping at this desk at work.
Credit: Ron Reiring on Flickr Creative Commons

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!