Survey asks foreigners which items' design they find most different from home countries

By Rachel Tackett

When raised within relatively homogenous culture like Japan, one rarely ever considers how their everyday surroundings might seem strange to someone from another country. And I don’t just mean the historical landmarks and traditional clothing. I’m talking about items encountered in everyday life like home toilets, product packaging and cell phones. Japan’s culture has shaped the designs of these various places and products in ways that most Japanese people would never think to realize are different from their foreign counterparts.

Hoping to shine light on a few of those surprising little differences, My Navi News recently conducted a survey asking 20 foreigners living in Japan which things they considered to be of a “totally different design” when comparing Japan to their home country. Here’s what a handful of the respondents had to say.


"Homes here have the toilet and the bathtub in completely separate rooms.” Male, late 30s, Brazil “The bathrooms.” Male, late 30s, Germany “The toilets. In Japan, the Washlet will clean your butt, but in Thailand we use a hose.” Female, late 30s, Thailand

Indeed. One of the first things that confused me when I came to live with a host family in Japan was the setup of the bathroom. Having the toilet and the bathtub in separate rooms was certainly new to my American mind, though my adjustment was immediate. Still, washing my hands with the water that comes out of the tiny faucet on top of the toilet and then runs into the tank seemed strangely dirty at first, despite the fact that I knew it was clean water, and for a while I was even hesitant to try the toilet’s built-in butt sprayer, but even that grew on me in time.

The thing that caused me the most confusion was the layout of the room with the tub. For those unaware of Japanese bathing habits, at home, one normally washes off while sitting on a stool in the middle of the shower area or wet-room, rather than getting into the tub to use the shower like in many Western homes. It’s a fact that I’d heard prior to my home stay but felt the need to confirm at least five times over before attempting to shower. Bathtubs in Japan aren’t for washing but for soaking, and should only be entered once you’re completely clean (unless you’re showering in an ultra-compact “unit bathroom” where it’s expected and rather like the typical Western setup). If you find a bathtub next to a small section of plastic or tiled flooring with a drain in it, however, the floor space is where one is expected to lather and rinse. Are there any other countries that bathe this way?

Cell phones

“Galapagos cell phones. In Russia, small and lightweight phones are the most popular.” Female, late 20s, Russia “Cell phones.” Male, early 30s, Syria

Even after moving to Japan for good, there was a long period of time where I was convinced that I didn’t need to resign myself to getting a smartphone, because the plain old Japanese flip phones were just so good! Even without the use of apps, a person can surf the web, pull up maps, check train times, consult a Japanese dictionary, as well as call, text, and email with just their standard cell phone. I’d venture to say the only thing Galapagos phones are missing is Angry Birds.


“Women’s style. Color choices and so on.” Male, late 30s, U.S. “Cosmetics packaging. Japan goes for cute, while in Korea it’s important to appear cool and stylish.” Female, late 30s, South Korea

It wasn’t before coming to Japan that I realized it was okay to mix plaids and polka dots. In fact, throw some stripes, a floral print, leopard spots, and a touch of lace on that outfit, and you’re still not committing a crime against fashion. Day-to-day styles in Japan are so very different from the old jeans and college sweatshirts that I grew up with. It’s to the point where if American men dressed the same way some of the guys in Tokyo do, I’d assume they must actually work in the fashion industry or something. But, I’m not complaining.

Daily household items

“The appearance of shops selling daily necessities and the design of the goods on sale.” Male, early 30s, Netherlands “Tableware.” Female, late 30s, Czech Republic “Plates, cups, and containers.” Female, early 20s, Iran “Washing machines.” Male, early 30s, Greece

Due to limited space, Japan is good at making all of their household items compact and stackable. To people who come from countries with ample storage space, the ingenuity of these designs can come as a surprise. Not to mention the layout of the stores can take some getting used to. Japan is still home to thousands of specialized mom-and-pop stores, with loyalty to these local shops keeping them from going out of business, even once big-name chains move into town. Still, I don’t understand why the little drugstores always carry dish soap and bleach…

In regards to tableware, the plates used in Japan are a reflection of the traditional foods they serve, so there are bowls with lids, the perfect size for a serving of miso soup, deep oval plates made specifically for curry and rice, and long, rectangular dishes sized for grilled fish. Unless a person’s home country serves similar foods with some regularity, then the design of Japanese dishes could come off as decidedly new. As for the washing machines, I just wish Japan would design a washer and dryer that don’t beat my clothes to a pulp. I understand now why many would rather hang their clothes out to dry.


“Packaging. In my country there are no slits to easily tear things open. It makes it hard to open manufactured goods.” Female, early 40s, Peru

As much as Japan hates to waste space and other resources, they go quite heavy on the packaging. But, on the other hand, Japanese packages are famously easy to open, no scissors necessary. Even the most expensive-looking items will be wrapped in a way that’s easy to peel away. I assume this is thanks to Japan’s low crime rates.

“The style of anime.” Male, early 40s, Taiwan

And here it is, the low-budget animation style popularized in recent years by the Cool Japan movement. While the style is often characterized by huge eyes and inhuman physical proportions, the same can be said for Disney if you think about it. Japanese anime is unique in that it does so much with what are often such small budgets, and at the same time covers virtually every possible story genre, from children’s cartoons to medieval war stories and giant space bots. You’ve got to admire that.

All-in-all differences in design are small matters that take little more than time for foreigners to become accustomed to. Even so, it can be difficult for visitors and recent immigrants to Japan to ask questions about these simple matters when locals understandably treat every aspect of their lives as a matter of common sense. Hopefully, My Navi’s report will give their readers a better understanding of the world outside of Japan, as well as help them see their own unique country from a foreigner’s perspective.

Source: My Navi News

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No-one said convenience stores? I find the range of stuff that they stock is a bit crazy. I know that some workers in Tokyo will pull all-nighters and need to grab a fresh pair of socks and underwear, but they still stock the same stuff in combinis in the inaka where I live.... I quietly wonder how many people are driving to work and suddenly say, "Oh, darn, I forgot my underwear/socks!"

6 ( +6 / -0 )

Just about everything is paid for in cash instead of EFTPOS. How low the doorway was in the first apartment in Azabu. How apples and strawberries are packed and presented. Individually packaged biscuits. Tiny cans of beer and also the 1 litre jobs.

3 ( +3 / -0 )


"Oh, darn, I forgot my underwear/socks!"

Could happen if just coming out of a "Love Hotel"...

2 ( +3 / -1 )

I find it hilarious/annoying when my colleagues all change their wardrobe on the same days. You won't see a short-sleeved shirt past October 1st. Then they all pretend it's colder out and look at you clad in your short sleeves muttering, "Samukunai?". Ugh.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

If I think of Packaging I must say I still get annoyed how vegetables and fruit are packaged here. Fixed in a [little] tray, covered with foil, containing some OK and some not so OK products as a rule. In most EU markets you choose what you want and weigh it, attach a bar code label spewed out by the machine, and you're done.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Packaging. Soooo annoying when you get the obasan on her once-weekly outing in front of you at the bakery getting 10 different bread rolls - INDIVIDUALLY BAGGED, taped then put into a carry bag, which is also taped. Don't worry about the line of people behind her or anything!

Over the top...

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Actually, the reign of the gara-kei cellphones are now coming to an end. Many people in Japan when they get out of their original cellphone contracts are switching to touchscreen Android phones (the Samsung Galaxy S series and the Sony Xperia series are very popular in Japan) or to the Apple iPhone (even though the iPhone lacks the NFC functionality need for mobile payment systems common in Japan). When even NTT docomo is now offering the iPhone 5S/5C models, you know time of gara-kei cellphones is nearly over.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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