Japan 2017 – Culture Part I

I worked for Mitubishi Electric America (MEA), which is the parent company to Mitsubishi Electronics (MELA) who make televisions, stereos, monitors installed in cars and airline seats; Mitsubishi Electric Sales (MESA) which is the retail outlet group of MELA, Mitsubishi Semiconductor, Diamond Vision and DV Electronic Marquees (ribbon boards in sporting venues).  We had many Japanese nationals in positions of power and management in our location … and workers from both the U.S. and Japan took various culture and leadership courses to understand our respective countries.  Even at that, the shock and confusion was somewhat unexpected at times among both the Japanese and American workers.

For example:  A Mitsubishi vice-president went through the requisite 3-month training and passed his driver’s license test in the U.S.  About 2 months later, he was given a ticket for speeding on CA91.  The posted speed: 55 … his speed: 89.  When questioned he said:  “But sign say 91.  I was smaller than 91.”  (facepalm)  A co-worker said: “Well thank God he wasn’t on I405 or I5!”  After having traveled on Japan’s roads and trains, I can relate to his frustrations not only with respect to the language, but also the laws.


Here are some of the more obvious cultural and etiquette differences between America and Japan (from various internet sites and person experience) …


In Japan, there is a word, omote, which refers to the public, formal, and conventional aspects of behavior.  This can refer to ingrained patterns of behavior, such as how close to one another people stand, or who shakes whose hand first at a meeting.  It also can allude to behavior in business affairs and events in a business setting.  I experienced this formal judgment at Mitsubishi during my annual employment review.  The Japanese value outside appearances very much. This is not to say that they do not value what is private and hidden, but much importance is placed on one’s presentation and appearance in the work environment.

I was in the Law Department and I dressed as anyone else in the legal field dressed at that time … 3 piece suit, 2 inch heels, hair short or pulled up, minimal jewelry and makeup.  During my first annual review, I was given a perfect score of 10 in the area of appearance, and another 10 in manners.  Neither of these had anything to do with my abilities or inner-company activities or productivity level or continued education toward my Bachelor’s degree.  The only issue noted on that review was I wore fairly expensive tailored suits and watches in comparison to those at my employment level (aka secretary).  I was told specifically to place those items in my locker, or even better, avoid wearing them.  In other words, I was complimented on my appearance but told to dumb it down (more on that in the next section).  Whatever the case, I was given a 50% raise based on appearance and attitude alone.

Ura, which is more valued in Japanese culture, refers to the private, informal, and unconventional aspects of social life.  Japanese people see this mode of behavior as more valuable and meaningful; however, a person only acts this way with close friends or family members.  My Vice-President broke convention in this regard as a member of my bowling team and as a member of my 4-man/woman darts league.  He invited me to his house to dine with him and his wife and children.  His demeanor changed completely when outside of the work environment; but once in his confidence, he never faltered and always treated me as family.

Social rank

As I mentioned, social ranking and status play a part in many major institutions that the Japanese go through in their lifetime.  In Japan, everyone is aware of everyone else’s age and occupation level.  In many companies, newsletters that display the ages of employees are produced for internal distribution, as an example of pride and recognition.  Vertical ranking determines everything from the location of desks in a classroom or office to the order in which cups of tea are distributed.  These rankings are even pervasive in the language where there are different ways of addressing others with respect to their age, whether older or younger.

Traditionally, the Japanese place great importance on the concept of wa, or group harmony where the value of the common greater good is more important than valuing one’s own needs.  This principle is applied in schools, as well as social groups and, later in life, the workplace.  The inferior partner in a relationship, whether personal or business, must allay their own wants, thoughts, and opinions to that of the superior, so as not to cause the superior to lose face or be humiliated.  The appearance, or tatemae, is more important than the reality, or honne.  Although this may appear as hypocritical or negative to the eyes of westerners, to the Japanese this is completely normal.  I experienced this many times at Mitsubishi.  As a non-management worker I was expected to keep quiet unless asked a direct question, sit in a particular place, and never make myself look smarter (or more wealthy) than my superiors no matter how incompetent.  Poise and protocol were tantamount.

Hard work; hard education; hard life

Omote, ura, wa, tatemae, and honne are part of the daily education of every Japanese citizen, and that education is compulsory at the elementary and middle school levels.  The school year is April through March with 6 weeks off in summer and 2 in winter; however, many students take tutoring courses or travel related courses during those two breaks.  Most students attend public schools through the lower secondary level (8th grade), but private education is also available for those who can afford it.  Not all children attend upper secondary and university levels, opting instead to go into trades that require apprenticeships.  Each of the upper-educational facilities are also funded publicly or privately, and neither public nor private schools are free at any level of education.  The annual family expenses for the education of a child in a public high school is about US$5,000 and private upper-secondary schools are about twice as expensive.  University studies run about US$11,000 tuition plus at least that much in housing and food for public education (with private universities costing two to three times as much).  What this means is parents take the financial brunt of educating their children, and those parents often work 7 days a week, sometimes 10 to 15 hours a day for over 40 years to meet those costs.

Sadly, this results in less family time, and increased suicide rates not only among adults, but also children under age 18 who are expected to meet an individual minimum testing score in order to move up the status ladder, all while “fitting in” to the group culture.  Japan has one of the highest suicide rates, according to a World Health Organization report, at 60 per cent higher than the global average.  There are an average of 70 daily suicides (25,500 or so per year).

Manners, customs and the Japanese way

Manners and customs are an important part of many facets of Japanese life.  Japanese people grow up picking up the subtleties of this unique culture as they go through life, respecting the invisible and varied societal rules.  There are many aspects of this seemingly complicated culture that as a foreign visitor you will not be expected to know, but there are some things that will be easier to grasp than others.


The suffix “san” is often used when you refer to someone else and is a term of respect. If referring to Mr/Mrs Suzuki, you would say, “Suzuki-san”.  However, you would never refer to yourself as “-san” and would only use your name on its own.


One of the most obvious social conventions in Japan is the bow.  In a country where people are packed together like sardines in trains, there is a sort of irony with respect to bowing and non-contact.  Everyone bows when they say hello, goodbye, thank you or sorry.  Bowing is a term of respect, remorse, gratitude and greeting.  If you meet someone in Japan you may wish to give them a little bow, but you do not necessarily need to bow to everyone who bows to you.  Many Japanese have adopted the hand-shake with respect to business dealings.

There are several forms of bowing:

  • Head nod:  Entering a shop or restaurant for example, you will be greeted with irrashaimase (welcome) and a bow from the staff as a sign of respect to you as the customer.  As the customer, you will not be expected to bow back as you could be facing a long bow-off as the staff will feel it necessary to bow back to you.  You may prefer to adopt the casual head-nod version of the bow as a sign of acknowledgement when thanked for your purchase at the end of your shopping experience. Many Japanese people use the head-nod in more casual everyday situations.
  • The eshaku 15-degree bow:  This bow is semi-formal and used for greetings when meeting people for the first time. You may have more use for this bow during your time in Japan, but you will not be expected to use it.
  • The 45-degree saikeirei bow:  This bow is used for moments for sincere apology or to show the highest of respect; and
  • The 30-degree keirei bow:  This bow also shows respect to superiors. As a visitor to Japan you will probably have no use for either the 45- or 30-degree bow, but you may need them if you are on a business trip.


This is something that confuses many visitors to Japan, but is so easy to understand. It is customary in Japan to take off your shoes when entering a traditional ryokan (guesthouse), a home, temple or the occasional restaurant.  Traditionally, the Japanese took off their shoes when entering homes as people would sleep, sit and eat on the tatami-mat floors and footwear worn outside would spread dirt across their living area. Today people still take off their footwear, partly to keep the inside of the building clean, but also as a sign of respect.  As a visitor to Japan, you will be expected to take off your shoes.  As soon as you step out of your shoes, step up straight onto the main floor and to be polite, you might like to turn around and position your shoes neatly or put them in the appropriate place.

Also, many westerners have no issues wearing open toed flip-flops in public, but many Japanese see the act of showing one’s feet as rude.  This is why you rarely see people without socks underneath their sandals in Japan.

Japansocks(picture from Rebel Market)

Eating and Drinking

Before eating a meal, the Japanese put their hands together and use the term itadakimasu (I humbly receive).  After the meal, it is polite to say gochiso sama deshita (thank you for the meal).  Japanese people will understand if visitors do not have proficient use of chopsticks, but there are some dining rules you should try and follow:

  • Do not stick your chopsticks into your bowl of rice or pass food around with them. As well as being slightly uncouth, these actions have relevance to the Japanese funeral ceremony.
  • Do not douse your rice in soy sauce. The Japanese are very proud of their rice and this seemingly innocent action may surprise and even offend some restaurant owners.  Once traded as currency, rice has been a staple food for the Japanese for over 2,000 years and still accompanies or forms the base of many meals. Harvesting rice is very labor-intensive and the Japanese are reminded of this from a very young age, which is why rice is rarely wasted and leftover rice is put to good use.
  • It is not common practice to walk and eat/drink in public; and is considered bad manners or low class.  You may sit down in a public place, like a park, and eat/drink or stand at tachi-gui restaurant/shops, but walking and eating/drinking is not polite, except during festivals.  However, there is approximately one vending machine for every 23 people in Japan which dispense almost every type of food and drink, and even though there is no law forbidding drinking beer on the streets, many cities no longer allow alcoholic drinks in public.


There is no tipping in Japanese restaurants or other places that many westerners will expect to tip.  The Japanese will always give the best service they can and do their jobs proudly.  A waiter or chef would certainly not accept a tip for doing their jobs and if you tried to leave one, they would awkwardly return your money, so … don’t tip.

Recycling and Environment

Although the Japanese like to think of themselves as attuned to nature, much of urban Japan is an industrialized, built-up, extremely dense mess.  This does not mean they do not stop recycling, nor do they discontinue environmental awareness.  A couple of examples we saw and experienced:

  • Since there is very little space inside a home or apartment, many residences have stacked washer and dryers, or a shared laundry room with a washer only.  Many, or not most, line dry their clothing on balconies which saves energy.  The “bad” part of this is the clothes are at the mercy of the weather.  Wind, rain, fog can mess this process up, and considerably slow it down.  (picture from TheJapanGuy.com)
  • There are recycling cans EVERYWHERE … train stations, street corners, shops … for everything (paper goods, metal and cans, and even umbrellas!)  It can be a bit daunting standing in front of the recycle bins, but it’s actually very simple:  There is a can for just about everything, and the 5 most common cans are: 1) glass, 2) plastic, 3) metal, 4) paper, and 5) other.  (picture from japantourlist.com)
  • Green Coins in hotels.  Hotels are very, very generous with respect to their amenities (aka “freebies”).  They offer slippers, robes, toothbrushes, toothpaste, razors, shower caps, Q-tips, and many more items.  The Green Coin program, as outlined in tokyohotelsjapan.com, aims to lower the damage to the global environment by decreasing the number of toothbrushes and razors used daily in hotels.  Guests who do not use the amenities can return a Green Coin for each amenity to the front desk (usually a maximum of 2 per day) and receive a discount on their accommodations.  The coins that are collected help fund various forest and low income programs throughout Japan.


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