Tokyo 2020 Olympics For Dummies
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Whether you’re heading to Japan for a quick visit or a longer stay, there are a few Japanese traditions and customs you’ll want to know. If you’ve never been to Japan, or Asia in general, you’ll most likely experience a bit of culture shock.

The Japanese way of life isn’t terribly different from the English-speaking world, but there are enough differences to take you out of your comfort zone. Knowing the differences can help make the transition smoother and ensure you don’t embarrass yourself or get yourself into trouble.

Stay to the left

When you go up the steps, which side of the steps do you stay on? When you walk down the sidewalk, which part of the sidewalk do you usually walk on?

Did you by chance answer the right side? If you live in a country where people drive on the right side of the road, you probably also tend to stay to the right when you’re walking.

In Japan, driving and walking are done on the left side. This takes most Americans a while to adjust to because it’s the common habit to stay on the right. If you do it without thinking, you may find yourself facing a sea of oncoming people on the sidewalk.

The same also applies to escalators. If you plan to stand on an escalator, make sure to stand on the left side. This keeps the right side clear for people who want to walk up or down the escalator.

The exception to this rule is when you’re in the Osaka and Kyoto area (approximately four hours west of Tokyo by bullet train). For whatever reason, people who live in this area stand on the right side of the escalator while keeping the left side clear for those who want to walk up it.

Don’t worry if you can’t remember which part of Japan walks on which side of the stairs. When in Japan, do as the Japanese do, and just follow what everybody around you is doing.

Remove your shoes

If you go over to a friend’s house, do you typically remove your shoes inside the doorway before entering the rest of the house? Depending on your own habits, and your friend’s preferences, you may or may not leave your shoes on.

In Japan, removing your shoes when entering somebody’s home or apartment is much more important than it sometimes is in the rest of the world. Historically, Japanese people often slept and even ate on the floor, so it was very important for the floors to be clean. Thus, removing shoes was a must. Even though most Japanese people have Western-style dinner tables and beds now, they still take off theirs shoes before entering the house.

The likelihood of your entering somebody’s home during your time in Japan is probably pretty slim (unless you have friends in the area). However, depending on what kind of hotel or apartment you stay in, you may be asked to remove your shoes before entering. You’ll most likely be given slippers to put on.

On the off chance that you aren’t given slippers, just walk around in your socks or go barefoot. If you have to use the restroom while visiting, you’ll find a separate pair of slippers to slip on while in the restroom. Just make sure to put on your original pair of slippers again when you exit the restroom and leave the toilet slippers for the next person using the restroom.

You may also encounter this custom when visiting various places of cultural significance, such as shrines and temples. You may also occasionally be asked to remove shoes before entering dressing rooms at clothing stores.

Be considerate of others

Given Japan’s very dense population, especially in bigger cities like Tokyo, things can be quite crowded. Most Japanese people are very aware of the fact that many actions they take will have a direct impact on those around them.

Japanese society, in general, has a very group-oriented way of thinking, as opposed to other countries, such as the United States, where people have a more individualist mentality. As such, Japanese people generally will go to great lengths to be polite and avoid irritating others. They don’t play music very loud and people refrain from talking on the train (whether to traveling companions or on the phone). That’s not to say that one way of thinking is better than another (all societies have their issues), but it’s something to keep in mind while in Japan.

In general, make more of an effort than you may normally to stay aware of your surroundings and be cognizant of how your actions may be affecting those around you.

Keep germs to yourself

In the Western world, if people are sick, they tend to keep to themselves. They may do their best to avoid coming into contact with others, such as shaking somebody’s hand. However, because of how crowded cities are, this can be very hard to do in Japan. As such, you often see people wear surgical masks to help prevent others from getting sick. You also see healthy people wear them in an effort to avoid getting sick themselves.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Celeste Kiyoko Hall is dedicated to helping others learn about Japan and its culture. She served as a board member for the Midwestern Japan Student Association and as president of the Japanese Cultural Exchange Circle and continues helping others plan their trips to Japan through her travel website, Footsteps of a Dreamer.

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