Facts about Japanese culture that tourists and businessmen might not know but really should before travelling or doing business.
Japan is famous for having one of the richest and most interesting cultures in the world. Many of the country’s ancient practices and traditions are still intact today, helping to shape Japan’s unique lifestyle and global perception.
While most Westerners conjure thoughts of sushi, samurai and sumo wrestlers when they think about Japanese culture (and they wouldn’t be wrong), these notions barely scratch the surface of the Japanese people and their multi-faceted culture.
If you are getting ready to take a holiday to the Land of the Rising Sun, heading there for business purposes, or just looking to be aware and respectful to people from this country, here are six traditions and rituals that you need to know in order to blend in with the locals and not succumb to an acute case of culture shock.
Read our post on Culture Shocks Around the World
Traditional Tea Ceremonies
Tea ceremonies are a common part of Japanese culture. This formal yet stylised custom is taken quite seriously. These ceremonies have been greatly influenced by Buddhist practices and the event can be likened to a meditative experience. Japanese tea ceremonies possess deep meaning to the country and those who are invited should feel quite honoured.
If you find yourself invited to such an occasion, be aware that each guest plays a role in the ceremony and will be seated in accordance with their ranking.
Guests should be keenly aware of Japanese tea ceremony etiquette as it can be a fairly complex ritual.
The Sacred Practice of Giving Gifts
Another Japanese tradition that is extremely prevalent throughout the culture is gift giving.
When meeting with business associates or arriving at someone’s home you have been invited to, it is particularly important to show respect and gratitude by presenting your hosts with a gift.
There are a variety of gifts that are acceptable; these largely depend on the occasion and your current relationship to the recipient.
Additionally, how the gift is wrapped is essential; be sure that it is packaged very nicely. If wrapping is not an option, present it in a bag from the shop it was purchased from.
Whatever you do, do not give someone gifts in a set of four as this is considered unlucky since the Japanese word for “four” is pronounced in the same way as “death”.
Never give to a Japanese gifts in a set of four as this is considered unlucky since the Japanese word for “four” is pronounced in the same way as “death”.
Present your gift towards the end of your encounter, and do so with both hands no matter if you are giving or receiving.
Additionally, if you are ever offered a gift, strongly object acceptance at first as this is polite; afterward, accept the gift as anything less would be rude.
Festive and Celebratory Bonenkai Parties
Each December, Japan is swarming with Bonenkai parties.
Bonenkai party means “forget the year party” and is a way for the Japanese people to leave behind their troubles from the current year and look optimistically towards a new one.
Pretty much every company will throw one of these parties, but there will also be private ones among friends and family.
This Japanese tradition is typically structured with various games and speeches.
If you are fortunate enough to be invited to one of these events, be sure to keep your etiquette intact (which we will go over in a moment) as there is often a second party (and possibly a third) afterward; these can get pretty rowdy.
Kampai: A Reverent Social Convention
Whenever you are out drinking with Japanese people, you’re going to hear the word “Kampai” quite a few times. This is akin to “Cheers” in English-speaking countries and translates to “dry glass” or “bottoms up”.
Be mindful when partaking in alcoholic beverages, however, as it is considered rude to pour yourself a drink; another guest should take care of this for you and you should do the same for others.
Additionally, it is also boorish to start drinking before everyone has a beverage and has the chance to Kampai.
Finally, if you want to appear reverent to your newfound friends, during the first round of drink, order the same thing as everyone else to show comradery.
Not Tipping: A Custom Rooted in Respect
Among all the festivities and drinks, your natural instincts might kick in and convince you to leave a tip on your way out of the bonenkai party or business meeting.
Under no circumstances should you leave a tip in any situation while visiting Japan.
Leaving a tip conveys a message that the business must not be well off and needs extra money.
In the Japanese culture, all of the services you have requested are included in the final price, so leave it at that.
While in Japan, foreigners might find it odd to see people sleeping in public places like on trains, park benches, and similar locations.
Pay no attention to this, however, as it is quite common. It is called inemuri, which translates to “sleep while being present.”
This is not only a common cultural Japanese practice, it is respected as a sign of a person who is working incredibly long hours to contribute to a company’s success and therefore just can’t keep their eyes open.
Finding workers asleep at their desk is an everyday occurrence in Japan and is honored by managers and other higher-ups in a company.
This doesn’t mean that employees can just curl up under their desks and take a nap; staff should appear as if they have dozed off while working. As inemuri is an unintentional nap, unlike hirune – a planned siesta – a person’s posture must reflect that they were trying to work and just couldn’t stay awake a moment longer.
These are just a handful of Japanese traditions that foreigners would be wise to understand. Travelling to a new country for work or pleasure can be a disorienting experience, but by honouring these customs and rituals, you are far more likely to develop prosperous and long-lasting relationships with many Japanese people.