“You know you’ve been in Japan too long when you start bowing on the telephone” is an old classic. But how about those things that, even if you haven’t been here long, still make you stop and think, yup, this is definitely Japan.
This is just our list and everyone is sure to have their own, but we hope you’ll enjoy these little gems, and perhaps even add your own in the comments section.
You know you’re in Japan when…
1. They’re blasting The Carpenters over the speakers at a restaurant.
The Carpenters (yes, the American pop duo of the '60s and '70s) is still popular in Japan whether at karaoke with friends or at a restaurant. The group having recorded 11 albums of easy-listening music over their career means that it’s not likely you’re going get too far away from being on the “Top of the World,” in the Land of the Rising Sun.
2. When the department store plays Auld Lang Syne over the speakers at the end of the day.
Hearing this old Scottish tune usually makes one think of the end of the year…unless, that is, you’re in Japan, where the tune is played at the closure of almost anything, from stores to the end of two-hour parties. The tune even has a Japanese version called “Hotaru no Hikari”.
3. The party lasts exactly two hours.
Many official parties in Japan (end of the year parties, beginning of the year parties, and work-related parties) take place in rented banquet rooms, so hotels and conference facilities rent them out in two-hour lots. And you best be out by the time the next customer’s party starts in that same room. Even if, at the end of the second hour, things are just starting to groove, the tell-tale bars of Auld Lang Syne, punctuated by farewells from the emcee, will signal the time to exit.
4. Everyone waits patiently at the pedestrian crossing, even though there are no cars coming.
In Japan, most people don’t cross the street until the red “don’t walk” guy turns into the green “walk” guy, even if they can see for miles down the street and there’s not a vehicle in sight.
5. When you see little kids performing their school show at the mall, dancing to hip hop lyrics so foul, you could never print them in a newspaper.
From strange English to just plain offensive English, Western culture can rear its ugly English head in some strange places, from song lyrics to slogans printed on t-shirts, their ill meanings unbeknownst to the Japanese. There’s nothing quite like the sight of a room full of seven-year-old kids happily eating lunch at school while listening to uncensored gangster rap.
6. You buy a pencil and they insist on wrapping it.
It’s easy to mistake “service” for “waste” when store clerks put a single item in a giant plastic bag or wrap it up for you.
7. When green tea isn’t just tea — it’s a flavor
In Japan you can get green tea flavored ice cream (McDonald’s matcha McFlurry anyone?), matcha white wine, matcha mochi, matcha Kitkats, and even matcha-infused popcorn. It’s matcha mania.
8. When it’s snowing and a woman rides by on a bike wearing a skirt…with two kids…and an umbrella up and her cell phone out.
The Japanese are known for their deft multitasking skills when it comes to bicycle riding, but few can compete with young mothers who can seemingly juggle any combination of minor tasks while battling the elements.
9. When a wooden stamp is more legally-binding than a signature.
You’d better not forget to bring your hanko, or name seal, when doing official business in Japan. The problem is that, unlike a signature where you can’t forget to bring your hand, you can forget to bring your hanko with you, and without it you won’t get very far.
10. There are flowers in the public toilet (even if they’re fake).
That little triangle fold at the end of the toilet paper sheet is just a little nicety to let you know you’re the first one to use the toilet since it has been cleaned.
11. When the waiter chases you down because you “forgot your change”.
Remember: tipping isn’t a thing in Japan, so if you leave even a couple of hundred yen on the table, your waiter will want to reunite you with it.
12. When people flash their hazards to thank you on the road.
Whether thanking you for giving way or for having to cut in front of you, the standard way of saying “thank you” in Japan is to flash the hazard lights. You might encounter this in some other countries around the world, too, but in Japan it’s so common you’d think it was a part of their license test…
13. When you see people leaving their valuables unattended.
Whether they’re going inside from the terrace of a restaurant to order or just going to load up on cakes at the Mr. Donut counter, it’s common to see people leave their expensive coat, camera or even handbags on a table while doing so.
14. When your bill is brought to you on a tiny strip of paper with just the total hand-written on it.
At the hairdresser’s, where my haircut gets progressively more expensive despite continuing deflation, after the cut the stylist hands me a tiny slip of torn paper with an amount written on it and says “Yoroshii desuka?” (“Is this OK?”)
More recently, at a restaurant in Okinawa, I went to pay the bill for a party of six and was also given a small slip of paper that just said “35,000 yen”. You’re not supposed to ask, you’re just expected to pay. I did ask, but was told they didn’t give receipts. Thank goodness Japan is such a trusting country!
15. When a business shies away from publicity because it doesn’t want its product to become TOO popular.
Just like many Japanese people feel that a restaurant that becomes too popular no longer has good food because they are too busy trying to please people rather than focus on cooking, others feel their boutique product is too special for regular consumption and may lose its exclusivity if it becomes too popular.
16. People wave goodbye until you’re out of sight.
The Japanese goodbye is legendary. The waves never stop until the guest is wholly and absolutely out of the line of sight.
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