Tipping, white teeth, fast food, and other Americana Japanese people don’t understand

By Luke Mahoney, grape Japan

Americans and other foreign residents living in Japan likely feel exasperated by cultural differences from time to time. Especially early in their stay, the seemingly endless litany of dos and don’ts can be confusing and downright frustrating. "Don't cross your legs," "don't blow your nose," "always clock in at least fifteen minutes early," "don’t point,” and so on and so on. For any expat concerned with fitting in, Japanese idiosyncrasies can be overwhelming.

By and by, most acclimate, but others intentionally flout norms on occasion. As such, the phrase “gaijin smash” comes to mind. Roughly put, the term describes some foreign residents’ (gaijin) tendency to knowingly disregard Japanese rules and customs, playing up their “foreignness” to excuse their offenses. You might imagine an individual barging through a station gate or nonchalantly cutting in line. In either case, they assume no one will stop them. Japanese residents are typically non-confrontational and have varying English abilities. It’d be too much trouble for them to communicate the faux pas in a foreign language.

And who knows, maybe it sometimes makes sense to be so brazen. From a Western perspective, some Japanese rules come across as outdated and entirely inane. Tattooed individuals are told to leave beaches and barred from entering most public baths. Until 2015, a WWII era ban on dancing was randomly enforced throughout the country, sometimes strictly. In such hard-to-accept situations, perhaps the rules are just asking to be "smashed."

Culture Shock

But what about the other side of the coin? If Westerners in Japan struggle to adjust, surely Japanese citizens living abroad have similar frustrations.

Along these lines, several Japanese vloggers have taken to social media to detail what they find curious about American customs and culture. YouTuber Shunchan, for example, compiled a list of “American things” he doesn’t understand.

Although Shun loves America, there are some customs with which he struggles. For starters, restaurant culture is confusing. He doesn't see why it is impolite to raise his hand to get a waiter or waitress's attention, and he was understandably put off by tipping. Americans also eat some bizarre items, like raw cookie dough and peanut butter on celery. Despite these unseemly choices, Shun was surprised by the American obsession over pearly whites. Pristine teeth are the norm, and individuals invest a lot in their smiles.

That said, Shun was a student while he was abroad. He was dumbfounded by what happened when he ordered a textbook online. Shun waited patiently without receiving his package, only to be told later it had already been delivered. As it turns out, the package was dropped off and subsequently stolen. The vlogger can't help but point out the carelessness involved. An unattended package is begging to be stolen, and that’s precisely what happened.

Views on American People

On their channel, Rachel and Jun were interested to know how Japanese people view Americans. They interviewed several college students in a YouTube video:

Many had understandable reactions when asked what comes to mind when they think about the country. Several thought about fast food, super-sized portions, and the associated weight problems of citizens. Regardless, students consider Americans to be open, accepting, positive, outgoing, and diverse.

However, not all perceptions were positive. Many mentioned gun crime, while others said Americans are dishonest, dangerous, and downright crazy.

Questions for Americans

Finally, YouTuber Ask Japanese got passersby to open up about questions they have for Americans.

Some interviewees were curious about American relationships, particularly among family. Family members seem close, so "Why do Americans have so much love in their families?" is a natural question. Perhaps related, one interviewee also wondered "How are Americans so open and why aren't they embarrassed to kiss in public?”

Naturally, many were curious about eating habits as well. Americans are known to overindulge in junk food, so some asked, "Why do Americans like hamburgers and cola so much?" Others wondered, "Why are American foods and snacks so colorful?" and "Why are portions so big?" Sure enough, others wanted to know, "Why do Americans tip?"

Finally, some were curious about cultural differences. A female respondent questioned, "Why don't Americans take their shoes off indoors?" and whether they clean their houses while wearing the same shoes they use outside. Another asked, "Why do Americans have so many house parties?" In Japan, home parties are uncommon.

Read more stories from grape Japan.

-- New illustrated book shows changing trends in Japanese make-up from Heiwa to Reiwa

-- Sanrio officially launches own website for greeting cards called Sanrio Greetings

-- Discover Hokusai through performance and stage art; ‘The Life of HOKUSAI’

© grape Japan

©2020 GPlusMedia Inc.

Login to comment

"Why do Americans like hamburgers and cola so much?"

I have the same question. But I would like to extend it. It applies to Okinawans also.

"Why is there a long line of cars waiting to get into MacDonalds drive through on a Sunday?" "How can they eat and drink this garbage?"

9 ( +13 / -4 )

Americans and other foreign residents living in Japan likely feel exasperated by cultural differences from time to time. Especially early in their stay, the seemingly endless litany of dos and don’ts can be confusing and downright frustrating. "Don't cross your legs," "don't blow your nose," "always clock in at least fifteen minutes early," "don’t point,” and so on and so on. For any expat concerned with fitting in, Japanese idiosyncrasies can be overwhelming

Ya think? Although I never particularly cared very much, if at all, about something that is just about impossible here (fitting in), I always found it particularly annoying how people always tried to force things like these on you when it suited them. Sometimes I had to go out of my way to make sure they knew I wasn't trying to fit into their group and let them know that you can't just feel like "including" someone when you feel like it. You don't just shove your "culture" down someone's throat every chance you get: "Yes, I do want to put THAT sauce on MY food, and not the one you've been taught you have to use." The looks I got! You'd have thought I had assassinated the emperor or something!

13 ( +15 / -2 )

Why do Japanese cover their mouths when they laugh? Maybe it's bad orthodontics or stained teeth?

Why do Japanese tell people they are foreigners? Hint, the foreigners know they are already.

Differences are just that, differences but it's better if you focus on the similarities, less likely to get culture shock. "you gotta accentuate the positive"

17 ( +17 / -0 )

I really don't care about the childish insights of Youtube vlloggers.

I care even less about these immature "norms" societies have. I just be myself at all times.

18 ( +20 / -2 )

No, I don't understand this obsession with glowing white teeth (see Trump). But then again, I don't think vampire teeth are sexy either.

"Don't cross your legs," "don't blow your nose,"

Seen all those in Japan on a regular basis. Do as I say and not as I do.

And fast food? Excuse me, but KFC and McD seem to be really really popular in Japan. Do as I say and not as I do.

"Why do Americans have so many house parties?"

Err, maybe because they want to socialize?

16 ( +17 / -1 )

Asking why people like a particular food isn't a very well-thought out question. People in the US like hamburgers and coke probably for the same reason Japanese like sushi and mugicha or why Brits like Shepard's pie and a good cuppa' or Nigerians like egusi and garri. You tend to like what you grow up eating. Is that really so hard to understand?

Why is American food so colorful? What does that even mean? Is this person wondering about the variety of fruits and vegetables in a meal or colorful desserts?

Why are Americans so obsessed with white teeth? It's probably a combination of white teeth symbolizing good health and prosperity with a bit of vanity thrown in.

Why is it impolite to raise your hand in a restaurant? Who told you that it was rude? If it's a crowded, noisy restaurant, it's not a real problem as long as you don't start shouting or waving your arm around. Servers in the US generally come by your table fairly often to ask if you need anything so you shouldn't have to be waving to get their attention anyway.

Culture shock is perfectly normal and probably easier to deal with if you use a little common sense. Why do people eat certain foods? Most likely because those were the foods available or common in the culture in which their ancestors came from. Why do people do or not do certain things? Rather than asking as if those things are odd, wrong and just beyond comprehension, why not do a little research or ask someone who's from the culture where you're feeling the shock? Starting the questions with "why" sounds a bit accusatory and negative and is more likely to elicit a less than friendly response so it's probably better to ask that person to "tell me about .....". Keeping it open friendlier makes you sound curious, which the person might appreciate, rather than imperious and rude. Your culture is not better. My culture is not better. They all have similarities and differences, good points and bad.

10 ( +12 / -2 )

Interesting article. When I first moved to Oita from Philadelphia I was struck by the fact that there were no trees in the city or neighborhood. Yakitori and nama beer still rocks after all these years.

8 ( +8 / -0 )

People from outside a culture who live in it can have interesting observations. People who have only experienced that culture from movies or tv shows, much less so.

For people living in a different country, their opinion of it may vastly change depending on their experiences and how emotionally tied they become to the place. It is much easier to be critical of something you think is "other".

I really don't care about the childish insights of Youtube vlloggers.

Based on its presentation, the last one should just call itself "giggly cute girls" (in capitals) and drop the pretense of trying to tell us anything.

8 ( +8 / -0 )

i have been tipping in Japan for the past 2 years as before waiters would without exception refuse but now I am glad to see 90 % of them accepting it. With the slave wages they are paid here tipping should become the norm and accepting the tip also.

-8 ( +3 / -11 )

I'll settle for simply brushed teeth; let's start easy, eh? Some of the stench I am faced with on a daily basis is enough to make me gag.

-1 ( +4 / -5 )

I’ll settle for simply brushed teeth; let's start easy, eh? Some of the stench I am faced with on a daily basis is enough to make me gag.

Ah, the myth that unbrushed teeth is the most common cause of bad breath. Gastric problems, diet and dehydration are the most common causes, along with medications and health issues that cause a dry mouth. Ask your dentist. The problem is people with these issues think that brushing their teeth is all they need to do, or eat some mints, and problem solved. Bad breath is a big problem here and I agree, it’s horrible. You know when someone behind you in the supermarket queue is not social distancing when you can smell their breath.

Note to coffee drinkers and chronic boozers - no matter how much mouthwash you use, how often you brush your teeth and how much gum you chew, your breath smells, it’s deeply unpleasant.

2 ( +5 / -3 )

It might just be as difficult for any non american to live in some parts of america. Outside the big cities situated on the coasts, it was difficult for me , English , to comprehend the logic behind behavior I saw on a daily basis.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

I am the only one noting the "free the nipples" part from Shun ?

That was the most pleasant thing (cleavage) I was missing in Japan, while there are more statues than most other countries with bare nipples. Too bad as a Frenchman.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

 He doesn't see why it is impolite to raise his hand to get a waiter or waitress's attention 

I don' think it is?!?! I usually lift my hand with a finger pointing up, although simple eye contact tends to work, not that the Japanese are good at that. LOL. It is however clearly impolite to take the Japanese approach: shouting "excuse me, excuse me" (sumimasen, sumisaen) repeatedly while the waiter is busy with other customers or with other tasks, which I see nearly every time I'm at a busy restaurant in Japan.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Things that surprised me when I lived in the US (Chicago): extremely dangerous neighborhoods, the sound of gun shots at night, enormous food portions, and high number of obese people. Tipping is extremely annoying

6 ( +6 / -0 )

Born and raised in Japan gokai doesn't hesitate to raise his hand to get a server's attention at a restaurant. I don't get that one. And what is "free the nipples"? Never heard of that.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Who writes these articles? Either someone too young to know anything or too out of touch to be living by themselves.

This is not 1975. McDonalds has been in Japan since 1970, even grandma eats a cheseburger, both clear and metal teeth braces are commonplace, as is a row of teeth whitening toothpaste, readily available and selling well at Matsukiyoshi and all drugstores for $10 to $20 per tube. If close, most Japanese have been to Costco or knows someone who has been there. It is not 'strange and foreign" anymore. Last time I was at Costco, there were only Japanese there, filling up their vans full of groceries by the case. hmmm. Boring.

The writer started off with a thesis and found uninformed people to fill out is story, or the author and the participants are living in a parallel universe where they refuse to see and accept anything except differences.

4 ( +4 / -0 )


"Free the nipples." You must be young or not into reading much.

"Free the nipples" started in the 70s when women started burning their bras, as a sign of women's liberation. Now they don't burn bras, "woken" women now just don't wear them. So without a bra, the nipples are "free" to move around as they desire. Seems to have the opposite effect than was intended, but who am I to judge free nipples when the wind blows cold....

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Why is American food so colorful? What does that even mean?

I had a relative that used to send me really, really colourful jelly beans from Florida. They didn’t look like food at all, and didn’t really taste like jelly beans.

And once (never again) we ordered a birthday cake from Costco that when it arrived was almost luminous. The cake was OK, but the icing was bitter from all the colouring and inedible.

 even grandma eats a cheseburger

Not our Obaachan. She loves and devours virtually anything put in front of her, but cheese is a big No. To be fair, that’s probably down to her experiences with Japanese ‘cheese’ rather than any sin by Mikky D’s.

The whole ‘why do Americans~’ isn’t exclusively a Japanese thing. There’s lots of aspects of American culture and thinking that the rest of us don’t understand, not the least of which is the ingestion of huge amounts of junk by people who can surely afford to eat properly.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

DO your thing and let us do ours. GET IT. Lets just agree to disagree! Grown women talking as if their mouths are filled with helium, putting their hands over their mouths to hide crooked teeth, walking pigeon toed with shoes bigger than their size. Ok, its cute we get it but lets not knock what some other cultures do. Who cares what one does, what matters is they enjoy!

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

I do admit....Americans are getting way too fat by numbers over the years...and I have been around a long time

but then again, I do see more fat Japanese......but nothing like America....(land of cheap sugar goodies)

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Login to leave a comment

Facebook users

Use your Facebook account to login or register with JapanToday. By doing so, you will also receive an email inviting you to receive our news alerts.

Facebook Connect

Login with your JapanToday account

User registration

Articles, Offers & Useful Resources

A mix of what's trending on our other sites