Lifestyles and customs

You need spend no more than a few days here to realize that most images of Japan sold to the West are bizarre and one-dimensional, and not at all revealing about everyday life. Traces of the hoary old “mysterious east” are easy to find, but there is even more evidence of the high-tech, twenty-first century nation Japan has become.

Talk about an extreme makeover—in the last 160 years Japan has evolved from an isolated feudal state into a modern country with a free market and some of the world’s most advanced technologies. Its society, however, is still catching up, and many of the old traditions and customs survive to this day.
As in any country, the foreign guest needs to understand some of the principles underlying Japanese culture, and what he or she should expect during day-to-day life. Do not be overawed by the seemingly endless array of social conventions and potential faux pas: few people here expect you to get things right the first time around, and the Japanese can be incredibly forgiving of even the most heinous of indiscretions. On your side of the social equation, a little patience and sensitivity will help you navigate most situations with aplomb.

Even if you’ve lived in another Asian country before, chances are you’ve never experienced a society quite like Japan’s. For many foreigners, the country’s culture is an endless source of fascination, titillation and more than a little exasperation. It is a land ripe with contradictions, whose dazzlingly modern present is informed by centuries of carefully cultivated tradition.
Throughout history the Japanese have been masters of fusion and adaptation, particularly adept at taking in foreign ideas, technology, and even customs, and molding them into something distinctively their own. The first wave of borrowing came from Chinese culture, as the Japanese took up rice farming, pottery making, and later, social and municipal organization, the writing system and even Buddhism.
More recently, since the nineteenth century, Japan began borrowing from Western nations: the army was modeled on Germany’s, the postal system came from England, and labor laws and democracy came from the United States.

Yet the result is something quintessentially Japanese. Japan’s penchant for mimicry and adaptation has been balanced by lengthy periods of isolation during its development; being geographically cut off from the continent, and having a large population of its own to draw on, has enabled the country to nurture an utterly singular culture. Japan’s national identity, too, rests on a sense that it is fundamentally different, even from its Asian neighbors, with a unique culture and set of institutions.

Influences from Chinese Confucianism are still strong: respect for ancestors, elders, and superiors is important, and the society can be very hierarchical. People are less likely to question orders from teachers or superiors, and doing so may cause friction.
This is often why Japanese people seem reluctant to say “no” to anything, or simply to speak their minds.

Conflict is usually avoided wherever possible: intermediaries are often asked to settle disputes, and you’re less likely to see people get angry in public here than back home. Negotiations are defined more by compromise than by confrontation or argument. Try not to get frustrated by this: value systems are different here, and asserting oneself isn’t seen in as rosy a light as it might be where you come from. Nevertheless, there are signs that this strong group orientation is breaking down as Japan matures into a wealthy, post-industrial nation.

Manners

As you might expect from a country where people have lived cheek by jowl for centuries, there is a finely honed sensibility that dictates how you should and shouldn’t behave.
The taboos are numerous here, and even Japanese people make mistakes. Combined with a general reluctance to point this out for fear of offending, even some long-term residents are blissfully ignorant of the egregious faux pas they make on a daily basis. The good news is that you’re not expected to know every little nuance of Japanese culture, and people probably won’t mind if you get things wrong occasionally. Being seen to make an effort goes a long way.

Some customs that you should observe very carefully, however, include often taking your shoes off when entering a building (and definitely a home), being on time, avoiding excessive physical contact (hugs, back slapping, kissing, and so on), and pointing with one’s index finger.

Some behaviors that may be acceptable back home are best avoided here. Eating or smoking while walking outside is traditionally considered impolite, as is blowing your nose in public.
Tipping is not a common custom in Japan. If you’re staying in a Japanese inn, it is considered a courtesy to offer the woman who attends to your room a small amount, but there is no need to tip cab drivers, bartenders, restaurant staff or your hairdresser. Apologizing for all manner of transgressions, real or perceived, is the proper move in a host of social situations. A casual “Sorry!” may suffice, but it is important that it appears very sincere. Apologies are often used to save face, to take responsibility for situations and to ease out of stalemates. Expressing contrition is done here in many situations that would be met with a “Thank you” at home. Don’t worry if you don’t mean it; think of it as saying “Excuse me” in your home country.

Eating and Drinking

Japanese table manners are not difficult, but some mistakes are very easy to make. Don’t pass food from your chopsticks to someone else’s, or stick them upright into your food, as these both mimic common funeral rituals. Also, avoid picking up food using one chopstick in each hand, skewering food with them, pointing them at another person, chewing on them, or waving them around when talking. Although it is not a must, it is very good manners to turn your chopsticks around if you are taking food from a communal plate. When you have finished your meal, place your chopsticks neatly across the top of your rice or soup bowl, or on the holder provided.
Go to just about any noodle shop and you’ll see and hear customers gleefully and noisily slurping down their ramen or soba. This is considered a sign of enjoyment and appreciation of the food. Many people don’t like it, even quite a few Japanese, and slurping one’s udon noodles in a high-class restaurant might be a mistake.
Before eating, you should say “itadakimasu” (literally meaning “I receive”) and, when the meal is finished or you leave a restaurant, say “gochiso sama deshita.” (It was a feast). Oddly enough, you don’t need to say anything at Western-style fast food or family restaurants.
When drinking with a group, do not start before the traditional toast, since this is considered very poor form. It is also customary to pour your neighbors’ drinks rather than your own. Don’t worry if your glass is starting to run empty: your drinking partners will swiftly repay the gesture. If you don’t want any more, simply leave your glass full.

Bowing

A Japanese woman with head bowed
The customary greeting in Japan, in some ways more important than any words that are spoken, is the bow (o-jigi). It can mean anything from “hello” to “goodbye,” “I’m sorry” to “thank you.” There are complex calculations to be made when determining the angle and number of bows, involving ages, company rank, whether one is a guest or a host, and one’s social standing. Generally speaking, the longer and lower the bow, the more respectful it is.
The basics are quite simple: Bow from the waist, and not just the neck and shoulders, to about 45 degrees. This is a neutrally polite depth and angle; use a natural and fluid motion. Men bow with their hands held at their sides, palms facing inward. Women bow with their hands crossed in front of them. Although they may bow to you, you do not have to do the same to restaurant staff or store clerks. Shaking hands is also becoming increasingly common, but expect a weaker grip than you are used to. Bowing first might work to your advantage; not only does it show respect for the custom, it also takes the guesswork out of the encounter. And you can always shake hands afterward.
Japanese city at night

Society

For a nation that has rushed headlong into modernity, Japan still retains a strong connection to its past. Examples of this are ever-present in contemporary life, from people’s homes and offices, to social institutions and customs. The tension between traditional and modern is tied to Japan’s rapid development from an agrarian society to a highly industrialized one.
Traditionally, Japan has had a very cohesive social structure. A manifestation of this has been in the importance of the group over the individual. Japanese culture developed in a society where
it was necessary to pool labor and resources, and cooperation was highly prized. People still tend to place the needs of the group—be it family members, friends or co-workers—over their own. Social unity is valued, and conformity takes precedence over “doing your own thing.” Even the outlandish fashions sported by today’s youth are a little misleading: if you spot a group of friends together, you may detect a surprising degree of uniformity in the way they dress. People will often gauge success more in terms of fulfilling one’s role in the group than of innovation or bucking the existing status quo.

Two cultural touchstones that Japan is known for are “Zen” and “Sado” the Tea Ceremony. Both have a deep connection with the venue for this year’s conference.

Japanese bamboo forest

Zen

It is difficult to sum up the nature of “Zen”. However, it lies in the following phrase, “I have attained enlightenment simultaneously with all sentient and insentient beings.” It is delivered in Zen tradition as Shakyamuni Buddha’s declaration of his enlightenment. This thought was transmitted to Japan in the 13th century through China. Master Dogen, the founder of Soto Sect in Japan, states, “To study Buddhism is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things. To be enlightened by all things is to be free from attachment to the body and mind of one’s self and others’ selves.” This standpoint comprises not only the personal building-up of one’s own self but also that of others. Our daily life is under the deep influence of wrong assumptions, concepts, and the self-consciousness caused by various desires. Zen Buddhism therefore tries to realize the real self and attain enlightenment. To attain this state, one should make untiring efforts to practice “Zazen” (the seated meditation), following the manner of Shakyamuni Buddha, Master Dogen, and Master Keizan.

A traditional Japanese tea cup and tea set

Sado, The Tea Ceremony

In sado, the master of the ceremony invites guests and serves Japanese traditional tea called maccha which is beautiful green powder. The spirit of sado is based on Zen philosophy. During the Kamakura period (1185–1333), as Zen became popular in Japan, the tea ceremony was also popularized. Following that, Sen-no-rikyu formed the origin of modern Sado in Azuchi-Momoyama period (1574-1600), All acts in sado such as how to enter the room, prepare tea, receive the tea bowl and drink tea are set to be accomplished beautifully and without unnecessary movement. The master of the ceremony will bring his/her tools to make the tea. He/She will then, clean the tea bowl and pour some hot water to warm up the bowl. He/she will add maccha, a powdered green tea in the tea bowl, pour hot water, stir with a bamboo whisk and then serve it to the guest. Japanese sweets are served with maccha as well. When you (the guest) receive the tea bowl, firstly you are supposed to bow. You pick up the bowl with your right hand and put it on your left hand. Then, turn the bowl twice clockwise. Sado is based on Japanese spirit of hospitality called Omotenashi.

We hope this brief introduction to Japanese culture will help you during your stay here. And as we say in Japan “Nihon e Yokoso!” (Welcome to Japan!)