This is a continuation from Training in Japan Part 4: Other Things to Note, food, culture, touring
This will be an important post to write to help anyone planning on visiting Japan for training for the first time, but it will also be tricky. There is so much about Japan that is different from the USA, it is impossible to cover it all. It will be a struggle to even cover enough to not seem like a complete tourist. So, my focus will be on how to not come across rude to other Japanese people you will be around, whether that be in the dojo or on a train.
Disclaimer: This blog post is intended to use as a reference. It is based on my personal experiences. No part of this blog can be or should be taken as legal, medical, or other advice.
Training in the Dojo: Find your training partner before class starts. Remember, you must be early to class. Often the Sensei may be late. Much like Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings Fellowship of the Ring movie, a sensei is neither early nor late, they arrive precisely when they mean to. Remember, you duty is to show up for training when in Japan. Of similar note, if you skip a class with your sensei to do tourist stuff, you might get a bit a grief when you come to the next class. Again, it is your duty to train if that is why you are in Japan. Fit in the tourist stuff around the training times. On you last class with that sensei for the trip, be sure to tell them after class that you are returning home and appreciated their classes. Which is why, if you don't show up to a class in favor of doing tourist stuff, it can appear rude because it seems like you left the country without saying goodbye to your Sensei. This is most important to remember with your Sensei, the one you have a direct link to through your dojo. You can train in other's classes also of course, and it is okay to skip those. Just don't skip the classes of your Sensei in Japan.
Riding Trains: Don't eat on trains (drinks are okay if they are spill proof, ie. have a lid or cap; do not spill a drink on the floor). The only exception to that rule is if you have an assigned seat with a tray table, in which case grab an Ekiben from the station to enjoy. Only talk on trains in a whisper, talking loudly is considered very rude. Do not ever leave garbage on the train.
Saying "Please:" There are more ways to say please in Japanese than just one. Many people are taught Kudasai, or Te Kudasai, means please in Japanese. While that is technically true, Te Kudasai is a very forceful way to say please. Typically teachers, police officers, and the like use that form. At train stations you'll hear Kudasai used when asking over the loud speaker for people to "please stay behind the yellow line." So, if you used Kudasai when ordering food, for example, you would be immediately asserting your importance over the server or cashier. Typically, the better and more polite way to say please is Onegashimasu. I was unaware of this distinction on my very first trip to Japan and used Kudasai in ways I would later be embarrassed by when I learned the difference between the two forms of please.
Eating Out: Eating out is one of the best parts of traveling to Japan. The food is sooooooo good. If you see a long line, it is probably worth eating there. Especially Ramen shops. A ramen shop with a long line is a good indication of what the locals think of that establishment. The line will move pretty fast because people eat ramen quickly. Keep that in mind, do not linger in the shop when you are served. Eat and make space for others to eat. You may have heard that is is polite to slurp your soup, and that is correct, but no not overdo it. The slurping is a way of cooling the noodles, pulling air between them as you take a bite. It is an unspoken way of saying "this ramen is soooo good I can't wait to let it cool, I must eat it now while very hot." You may also want to say "Itadakimasu" before digging into your food. This is a polite way to give thanks for the food. It essentially means, "I humbly receive this food." It is also an acknowledgement of the animals who died to provide the meat, the farmers who worked hard to harvest the vegetables and rice, and the person who prepared the food for your table.
In nearly every restaurant you will be given a wet napkin in a bag. In nicer restaurants you'll by given a damp towel rolled up. These are for washing your fingers and hands before eating. You should use it for such. On a hot sweaty day, it can also be refreshing to use for the neck and face. I'm not 100% sure if this is polite or not, to use it to wipe sweat off the face and neck, but I see a lot of people do it, so it seems to be socially acceptable.
When buying food from a convenience store, do not eat as you walk on the sidewalk. Either eat it immediately in front of the store, or take it to your hotel room and enjoy the snack there. It is considered rude to eat while walking down the sidewalk.
One important thing to take note of in Japan when eating out, you will not be able to customize things that aren't part of the menu. Don't like the sauce that comes on whatever the food item is, tough. Example, if you order a cheese burger and that restaurant puts mustard on cheese burgers, you cannot ask for no mustard. Want more meat sauce on your spaghetti, sorry, not even if you want to pay extra for it. At restaurants, food comes the way it is intended to be served. That is just the way it is.
Learning the Language: Japanese is a super hard language to learn because it doesn't have any similar structures to English. There are four distinct and different alphabets (Romaji, Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana) and also different forms of conjugation based on the setting and the people you are speaking with. I won't even begin to list the rules or types of conjugation here because it is quite lengthy. Even people who take a college course on Japanese like Genki, won't learn the important nuances of conjugation. Those courses typically teach the polite or formal form of the words which are not appropriate for most interactions you will have with Japanese people as a tourist. I think those courses are more geared towards students who will do business in Japan, so they will use the polite and formal forms in their communication. If you speak with a person you just met on the street, restaurant, train, etc. like that you will come across overly formal, almost mockingly so. Think of a butler speaking with a common person in perfect English and enunciation and you'll have an idea of how you would come across. As far as apps go, I think Duo Lingo is great and fun for learning Hiragana and Katakana and some basic phrases. Rocket Japanese is a better app for learning how to communicate with people verbally. It is pricey, but I think well worth it if you catch it on sale.
Walking in Public: This is a simple one, walk on the left side of the sidewalk because their roads are also reversed from how they are in the USA. Cars drive on the left, people walk on the left. When using an escalator, stand on the left side, walk on the right. Those on the left need to allow space on the right for people who are in a hurry and need to walk past. So don't have your suitcase blocking their path. Don't eat while walking in public.
Tattoos: Tattoos are still mostly taboo in Japan. If you do have them, find ways to cover them up when in public. If you don't cover them up, nothing will happen to you other than some businesses might ask you to leave. Mostly you will just scare people or make them feel uncomfortable. This is because for a very, very long time only Yakuza (Japanese mafia) wore tattoos, so it was an open way of stating a person was an outlaw or gangster. This is why you will notice Japanese people feel uncomfortable around those with tattoos. I've been told that the culture is slowly shifting to become more accepting.
Street Performers: There are very fun and talented street performers that are fun to watch, listen to, or interact with. Keep in mind, it is not okay to take their picture or video without permission. They take this very seriously. Just don't do it unless you ask first. Also, they don't expect a tip usually for their performance. There is no tipping culture at all in Japan. So don't leave tips at restaurants either. Typically they will have something for you to buy. Like a CD if they are a musician. Sometimes performers aren't selling anything, they are usually paid by a store to perform for advertisement. They would think it strange if you dropped a 100 yen or 500 yen on the ground in front of them. It is possible that at some point tipping street performers will change, and if it does it will be as if it has always been that way. So, if you see others tipping, it may be expected now. Seriously, when rules or taboos change in Japan, they act as if that is the way it has always been. When asked about one of these changes, this was the response, "Oh, it's a new rule. Always been the rule."
Recording Video: This is connected to the previous section. Do not take video in stores without permission. This has become a very serious culture shift in Japan. Only take video or pictures with permission. Same in the dojo, do not take pictures or video of the Sensei teaching unless you have express permission ahead of time.
Money: I already covered tipping and how there is no tipping in Japan. Seriously, they will chase you down the sidewalk to bring you the change, so don't do it. If you thank the server after your meal, that is praise enough. The restaurant pays the servers well enough, which is why they don't expect tipping. Other money points of etiquette. Do not hand money directly to a cashier. You will see a little tray, this is where you place the money. Handing the money directly to the shop keeper or cashier is rude. The cashier will sometimes return your change to the tray, however in some instances they will hand you your change. This is NOT them being rude. It is different. It is hard to explain without going into Japan's history and the dichotomy in the way they view money. It is both something to be proud of having, and something dirty that one should not seek after. Paying them increases their money, so they don't want to take it directly from you, you need to show a willingness to part with it by putting it in the tray. When giving you change, they are just giving you your money back that was already yours so they can hand it back to you.
Click here to continue on to part six in this series.
Shane Sensei is a licensed Shidoshi in the Bujinkan and member of the Shidoshi-Kai. He has trained in the Bujinkan since 1998 and regularly travels to Japan for training.