18 things I Don’t Understand & Can’t Get Used to About Japanese Culture

So, I’ve been in Japan for about two and a half months now, and the culture shock is real. And it’s getting to me. If you look at any graph of what “typical” culture shock looks like, there is an initial honeymoon period, followed by steep drop into homesickness, frustration, and discontent, and then an eventual leveling out as you adapt to the host culture. So right now, I’m on that curve plummeting downwards. See below.

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The initial excitement of living in Japan has worn off, and I’m left with just trying to get by in a culture that is profoundly different from my own. Nothing makes sense, and everything is backwards and different. Every day is a challenge, in a million little ways. And while I am sincerely trying to be open-minded, flexible, and accepting of Japanese culture, there are certain things that I just don’t get, and that I am having a hard time adjusting to. I’ve written a (non-exhaustive) list of some of the things that are getting to me the most. Here it goes:

18 things I Don’t Understand & Can’t Get Used to About
Japanese Culture (in no particular order)

1. The mysterious non-existence of trashcans. There are NO TRASHCANS ANYWHERE in Japan, and it’s super frustrating. When I get home at the end of the day, my purse is pretty much always filled with trash, because that’s my only option.

2. The whole deal with stamping. In Japan, instead of signing paperwork, you use a personal hanko stamp. And the stamping is a big deal. To count my attendance at school everyday, instead of clocking into a timecard system, I stamp my hanko. How are stamps even still a thing? It is 2016, there are freaking robots and smartphones all over the place, how is Japan still relying on rubber stamps and ink to make things legitimate (especially when it would it would be so easy to copy or fake a hanko)?

3. That smoking indoors in restaurants and public buildings is still a thing. It’s gross.

4. That Japan is still a cash society. I have to always carry around large amounts of cash, because the vast majority of places don’t accept debit or credit cards. I hate carrying around so many coins and always having to plan ahead and prepare myself with enough cash for whatever might come up. If I don’t, I’m shit outta luck. Even in a case of emergency, my credit card is basically useless, and ATMs are only open during business hours.

5. The extremely loud slurping while eating noodles. I know it is not considered rude according to Japanese table manners, and that it is actually a sign that you are enjoying your meal. But personally, I just can’t get on board. I think it’s disgusting.

6. The much more modest standards of what is appropriate for women to wear. Women are supposed to keep their shoulders covered. So even in the middle of summer, when it is 95 degrees out and I’m sweating like crazy, I have to wear cardigan to school. Because, god forbid someone sees my slutty shoulders.

7. Toilets: it’s either an unnecessarily high-tech robot toilet with 16 different spray/bidet options, a heated seat, and background music, or it’s a “Japanese Style” toilet – literally just a hole in the ground that you squat over. And at a lot of places, even in the middle of Tokyo, which is supposed to be this ultramodern city, the squat toilet is your only option.

8. The magical non-existence of napkins/paper towels. Every single restaurant provides you with an oshibori (wet towel) to clean your hands before eating, but very rarely do they provide actual napkins for you to use during/after eating. Bathrooms have sinks to wash your hands, but never have paper towels or hand dryers (I have learned that I’m supposed to carry a “personal towel,” but I find the idea of carrying around a damp towel in my purse all day pretty gross).

9. That it is considered rude to eat/drink while walking in public. How is this offensive? I’m so sorry, elderly Japanese lady, that the sight of me eating a granola bar on my walk to school was so traumatizing for you.

10. The extremely wasteful and excessive packaging of everything. Why is this singular tomato in its own Styrofoam tray, wrapped in plastic? Why is each cookie in a separate plastic wrapper, inside a bigger plastic bag, inside a box, inside the plastic bag you give me when I buy it? If you’re going to give me so much packaging, please don’t make sorting trash so difficult!

11. So, speaking of sorting trash. It’s seriously like rocket science. Generally, it’s separated into burnable and non-burnable garbage, but then there are different categories of recyclables, and every area has its own trash sorting rules. In my neighborhood, I have four different kinds of trash, each which needs to be taken out on a different day of the week. And within these four bigger categories of trash, there are sub-categories, which need to be further separated and put into different bags (the total number of different kinds of trash listed on the trash-sorting guide from my city is 17. I wish I were exaggerating). And, if you don’t sort it exactly right, the garbage men just refuse to take it.

12. Some of the fashion trends. In particular: socks and high heels, fuzzy platform flip-flops, scrunchies, couples in matching sweaters, and the unflattering, wide-legged, mid-shin culottes that everyone is wearing.

13. The absolutely insane work culture. I thought Americans worked too much. Then I came to Japan. People routinely work 12-16 hour days, 6 or 7 days a week. The coming-home-from-work rush hour is not around 5-6 pm like it is in the States, its around 9-10 pm. Japanese people get vacation days by law, but it is considered rude to actually take them, so most people don’t. Teachers never call in sick, because there are no substitutes. Working until you are so exhausted you fall asleep at your desk is seen as a good thing. There’s even a word for it – inemuri. The work culture is truly crazy, and in my opinion demoralizing and counter-productive. Thankfully due to my contract with JET, I am exempt from these absurd standards.

14. Walking/driving on the left-hand side of the street. I’m still finding myself constantly on the wrong side, bumping into people.

15. The fact that vending machines are everywhere, but water fountains don’t exist. Reusable water bottles are not a thing in Japan, so everyone just buys plastic bottles from the omnipresent vending machines, producing so much unnecessary waste. I’m so glad that I brought my Nalgene from home, but I can never find a place to fill it up. I have seen a grand total of two drinking fountains in Japan so far.

16. The insanely high prices of fruits and vegetables. $16 for a cantaloupe? $9 for this tiny container of, like, six strawberries? $2 for literally four individual lettuce leaves? The prices are nuts, and I can’t afford them. I never imagined I’d be daydreaming about vegetables. (Side note, I understand that prices are so high because Japan doesn’t have a lot of farmable land, and farmers are actually paid decent wages. But still. I feel like I’m going to get scurvy living here.)

17. The different sense of personal space (read: no personal space). In crowds, people just bump right into you, cars and bikes drive dangerously close to you, when someone is standing blocking an aisle, they make no effort to move aside and let you pass, and people just keep pushing and squishing onto subway cars until it’s so packed you literally cannot move. Catching the last train home, being squeezed in face-to-face with a bunch of drunk salarymen, is probably one of my least favorite things ever.

18. That there is no cheese in the Japanese cuisine. As a cheese-lover, the non-availability of cheese here is simply heartbreaking.

(Please know that, while I’m being pretty snarky and sarcastic right now, I mean no offense by anything on this list. I’m sure there are a hundred things about American culture that would just as baffling to a Japanese person as these things are to me. And, I’ve decided to write a list of things I really like about Japanese culture, because there are plenty of those things too. Stay tuned!)

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11 thoughts on “18 things I Don’t Understand & Can’t Get Used to About Japanese Culture

  1. Cheese Kingdom チーズ王国in the kichijoji station. Cheap cheese is everywhere. Costco has tons. You can pay more and get it through theflyingpig or tengu

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  2. Emma, you can get cheaper fruit and vegetables at a place like Lawson 100, which, according to Google maps is only 800m from Kichijoji station. Seiyu is also close to there and will have cheese, quite a variety if you look carefully. Almost every convenience store I’ve ever been in has trash cans, please use them if carrying trash with you drives you crazy. But above all, know that this is just a phase, it will get better. You might even look back and laugh at the things you didn’t know or that frustrated you. I’ve been here quite a number of years now and, though some of the things on your list still frustrate me to a degree, they now longer make me fume, and I’ve found my way around many (like the cheese, veggies, and trash). If you can find a foreigner who’s been here longer than you, perhaps they can help you find your way too.

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    1. Hi Wendy, thank you for all the great suggestions and advice!
      I have actually found a Lawson 100 right next to my house, and I go there for veggies. Seiyu is also great.
      I trust that it is going to get better and easier, but it’s nice to hear it from someone who has been here a long time!

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  3. i kind of might want to move to japan when im older to maybe teach or something idk tbh lmao, and im starting to learn japanese now (im only 15 so i have have a while but tbh i have no idea where to start w/ hiragana) and ive been wondering for ages if i need to be like 100% fluent to get around, or if i would survive by knowing a decent amount before moving there, and learning more simply by being surrounded by it all day every day? are you fluent/near fluent or anything + what’s it been like for you?

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    1. Hey Leo! You definitely don’t need to be 100% fluent to get around. I came with basically zero Japanese, and I’m surviving just fine. With that said, any lanaguage ablity would greatly enhance your experience of living here. I find you really have to make an effort to study if you want to improve. I’ve picked up basic survival Japanese, but not much beyond that. But if you’re starting to learn now, I think you’ll be totally set when you come! If you need some help with hiragana, check out this guide: https://www.tofugu.com/japanese/learn-hiragana/ Its awesome and helped me learn hiragana in just a couple weeks. There is one for katakana too!

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      1. awesome!! ive learnt some really basic phrase, and im learning hiragana right now and its just….a steep learning curve to say the least!! im used to latin root languages so im just getting used to the symbols and everything haha. thank you so much!!

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