Do's and Don'ts for Living in Japan

Leigh Bowie

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In March of 2019 I embarked on a 6 month university exchange to Nagoya in Japan. To say that being offered a place to study there was a shock is definitely an understatement, considering that my first choices were America and Australia. Making the decision as to whether I wanted to go was quite difficult as I had to consider if I would be able to live halfway across the world, in a new country with a unique culture that does not speak English. In hindsight, I would have been stupid to pass up this amazing opportunity! Looking back now, especially after the crazy year of 2020, I had the time of my life in Japan and my eyes were opened up to a whole new part of the world with which I’ve become infatuated. Although for some people Asia may not be their desired location, I hope I can convince you otherwise, because Japan is now one of my favourite places I’ve ever been and I’d love to share my experience and the Do’s and Don’ts of living there. 

DO'S

1. Do Embrace the culture

Personally, I believe that Japanese culture is one of the most interesting in the world, so I would strongly suggest throwing yourself right into it as soon as you get there. Learn about the culture, its history and try to find some activities that allow you to experience this. I was lucky that my university was great at organising trips such as rice planting, zen experiences, ikebana (flower arrangement), and so much more. Not only do you have fun and learn something, but you can pick up new skills and it’s an amazing story to tell! 

Try to learn some of the language before you go. It’s a difficult language to pick up but knowing the basics will definitely help you along the way.

2. Do try new Food

If you’re anything like me, you love food and especially Japanese food. Noodles, sushi, gyozas, fried chicken and all of the desserts – my one big tip would be to try EVERYTHING! There is always something new to try and even after 6 months of living there I was still discovering new cuisine. Check out small, local restaurants as well as some of the chains and you’ll fall in love with the food. Go for a snack run through 7/11, Lawson or FamilyMart as they have the best snacks and are a perfect stop for a quick bite to eat or drink. 

Finally, something you may not think is polite but is highly recommended is to SLURP YOUR NOODLES! It’s a sign that you’re enjoying your food and enhances the flavour.

3. Do Travel

Japan is perfect for exploring as their bullet train system can take you up and down the country in no time at all. Luckily living in Nagoya gave me a central spot for travelling and was only one to two hours away from Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, so I travelled there numerous times. On these trips I was able to see so much more of the country, the famous tourist attractions and experience some crazy ones too; especially in Tokyo with the Monster Café, Takeshita Street and the Robot Show. All tourists can get a JR Rail pass which allows you to travel on unlimited (but specific) bullet trains for your entire stay and is a really cost-effective way to see the country.

Moreover, Japan is in a really central location to travel to other parts of Asia. Whilst living there, I travelled to China, South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines (whilst still finding time to study, I promise)! Being able to experience other parts of Asia whilst living in Japan was incredible and, again, cost-effective.

4. Do Join expat/tourist pages

I was lucky enough to move to Japan with someone from my home university and meet some amazing people from all over the world on the exchange program, but joining different Facebook Groups can also really help with meeting international or Japanese friends during your stay. These pages can also help with general advice such as restaurant recommendations, festivals, travel tips etc.

DON'TS

The main don’t, whether you’re a tourist or a student living in Japan, is to think that you know everything and ignore cultural etiquette. Japanese people have an extremely strong culture with sacred traditions that take some getting used to; fortunately there are easy things to do that show you care about the place you are in. These norms relate to food, greetings, transport and public behaviour. Here’s a list of some of the main ones that will definitely help you get by:

1. Don't tip

Japanese people don’t believe in tipping and it can be seen as insulting, as they believe that everyone should provide a high level of service without the financial incentive. Saving money and you’re not offending anyone, it’s a win-win!

2. Don’t forget to take your shoes off when entering a home or even some restaurants

It is customary to take your shoes off as you enter a home and at the door there will be slippers for you to wear. They believe that it brings uncleanliness into the home which, to be honest, is true!

3. Don’t forget to bow

Bowing when you meet someone, thank them or saying goodbye shows that you appreciate their culture and also have some manners.

4. Don’t talk on the phone on public transport

It’s considered rude to speak or have your phone on loud when travelling as you can disturb other passengers who, a lot of the time, are sleeping! So save the calls for when you are on the streets.

5. Don’t forget to queue and wait

Japanese people love a queuing system, especially for public transport, so get in line and follow the markers on the ground which show you where the train doors will open. Also, don’t jaywalk!

6. Don’t play with your chopsticks

Chopsticks are the main form of cutlery so good luck asking for a knife and fork! There’s loads of do’s and don’ts for chopsticks but the main ones are: don’t stand them up in your rice or use them to pass food to others as this is usually done at funerals.

Overall, I really cannot recommend Japan highly enough to students or for travel in general. I had the most amazing time and learned so much about parts of the world I never would have dreamed of visiting. So just remember to do your research to learn about Japanese culture before you go, and you’ll be set for an incredible trip. 
Arigatōgozaimashita for reading and make sure to get Japan on your travel list! 

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