Fan Faux Pas (Or What Not to Do in Japan)

Fan Faux Pas (Or What Not to Do in Japan)

Japan definitely has some cultural nuances that are difficult to figure out — but that’s also what makes it such an exciting place to visit. Read on for do’s, don’ts and where to find help just in case.


Riding the train


Lining up

Before boarding the train, be sure to line up within the well-marked sections in front of the tracks to prevent congestion on the platform.

During peak hours (before and after work) you will have to sacrifice personal space in order to slip into the last available empty slot on the train, so don’t stress, politely pushing with a purpose is permissible. 


Ssssh!

Once you do get on the train, even if it’s jam-packed with passengers you’ll notice that there’s practically no sound within the carriages. As a courtesy to other passengers, speaking on the phone, playing music and having loud conversations are typically avoided. It may sound a little over the top, but after a long, tiring day exploring the city you’ll appreciate its peacefulness. 


Women-only cars

Gentlemen, be wary that as a safety and comfort measure, during peak hours certain trains have “women’s only” carriages marked by a pink sticker that’s clearly written in both English and Japanese. They are usually positioned at the front and back ends of the train. 


Priority seats

On most trains you’ll find priority seating at the ends of each carriage, typically marked by a sign or different upholstery. These seats are reserved for those who may need them most (elderly, pregnant women, those with physical ailments). As a general rule it is OK to use the seats if the train is empty, however when it’s a little busier it’s safest to just leave the seats free.

In a restaurant


No tips please

Firstly, tipping is not necessary; don’t even try to be generous because if you do leave cash, there’s a chance your server will chase you out of the establishment in an attempt to return your “dropped” cash.   


Communicating with servers

If you want to place an order, getting the attention of the restaurant staff with a raised hand and a “Sumimasen” (Excuse me) is totally fine, so if you feel like you’re getting ignored, give it a go.

Customizing an order like, “Can I get it vegetarian/tofu instead of chicken?” is typically not a thing. In general to avoid confusion it’s better to stick to the menu where you can.

The bill

When it comes to paying for the bill, don’t be surprised if there’s a few hundred yen fee added to the bottom of the bill. It’s a table charge. Many izakaya (Japanese restaurant and bar hybrids) have one; it usually covers the small appetizer that was served as you arrived. Splitting bills (ask for “Betsu betsu” at the register) is OK, but if you’re eating with a group it’s common to adhere to the sometimes unspoken Japanese rule of “warikan” which is the agreement to divide the cost of the bill equally between diners — it saves awkwardness.

The shoe situation


Socks on

If you visit somebody’s house, ryokan (inn) or other traditional space (typically ones with tatami mat flooring) prepare ahead of time by wearing nicer socks because there’s a good chance you’ll have to whip your shoes off upon entering. 


Toilet slippers

Many toilets in these types of public spaces will have toilet slippers to wear in the bathroom, so if you do pop them on, don’t forget to leave them there when you’re done. Walking around in toilet slippers is probably like the Japanese equivalent to having a long strip of toilet paper stuck to your shoe; sure, it’s harmless but still pretty embarrassing.

On the streets


Drinking in public

Drinking in public in Japan is legal. You can pop into your nearest convenience store, grab a beer and crack it open right out front of the store and nobody will bat an eyelid. Although it’s probably not recommended; spend a Saturday night in the center of any Japanese city and you’ll quickly learn that being drunk in public is just a regular part of of the nightlife landscape. Having a little booze-induced nap on the street won’t get you into any trouble, but being silly and doing things like graffiti, destroying public property, or stealing items such as traffic cones or street signs will get you in serious trouble, as in spending-a-few-nights-in-jail-type trouble, so — just don’t.


Drug laws

As a country that has such a relaxed attitude to intoxication, Japan’s drug laws couldn’t be more strict. Essentially the government has a straight-up zero tolerance policy to any type of illicit substance no matter how benign you perceive them to be. If you’re caught in possession of or using drugs, you can expect some pretty harsh penalties including deportation or serious jail time. Don’t even think about it. 


Rubbish

One of Japan’s most fascinating miracles is just how clean the cities’ streets are, this reality made all the more incredible by the fact that there’s close to no public garbage cans on the streets. No littering should be a no-brainer no matter where you are; however it’s definitely a massive no-go here. If you really desperately need a garbage/trash can, pop into one of the country’s ubiquitous convenience stores to get rid of your trash, otherwise be prepared to hold onto it until you get home. 


Eating while walking

Eating on the street is generally considered to be a show of poor manners, so if you’re stopping for a snack pull to the side. Also pushing through Shibuya crossing while juggling a burger and fries is a near-impossible feat anyway.

Same goes with lighting up on the street. Japan doesn’t seem to mind smoking indoors, but on the footpath? No way! There are often designated smoking areas near major stations, but otherwise it’s best to hold off.


Jaywalking

Jaywalking (not crossing at the lights) might get you a car horn, some side eye, but worst of all a stern talking to and fine from the ubiquitous policemen in blue. It’s just not the done thing. 


Cycling

If you decide to rent a bike during your time here, be wary of where you park it, not because of thieves but because of the country’s always watchful bike patrol. In order to combat the abandoning of tens of thousands of bikes across the nation, many cities will send street cleaners to collect any bikes not parked in designated parking areas. If you do get your bike confiscated, expect a fine and probably a few forms to fill out.

Tattoos


What’s the real deal?

Well, it depends on where you are, who’s there and how many tattoos you have. If you’re planning to visit an onsen (public bath) or swimming pool, the safest option is to cover them if you can, and if you can’t, just look up the closest tattoo-friendly onsen.

The reasons for the anti-tattoo sentiment dates back to old assumptions about criminal activity. While the perception of inked visitors has been a little more relaxed in recent years, many establishments still maintain the "no tattoo" rule, whether you're clearly a criminal or not.

If you do find yourself in a little trouble


Koban: Your first point of call

There’s a relatively strong police presence throughout most of Japan, and it can really be felt when you begin to notice Koban (police boxes) scattered around the cities. You’ll usually find police boxes in busy central areas like near train stations, major streets and dotted throughout more residential areas too. Although their main duty is to maintain order and keep an eye out for crime, you can also pop into your local Koban to ask for help or directions too. If you’ve lost a personal item, or are just lost yourself, this is your first point of call. Police boxes are open all hours.


Emergency numbers

110 is the number of the police in Japan. There is a police translation center which can help mediate calls in English.

For up to date information on earthquakes you can bookmark the English version of the Japan Meteorological Agency website. They also have a page dedicated to typhoons too.

Yokohama City hosts their own locally specific disaster prevention information page. Here you’ll find everything you need to know about impending natural disasters, staying safe in the area and where to find the closest shelters. For more information on more general emergency services, bookmark the Yokohama Emergency Services guide page.

If you lose your passport, or need to get in contact with an official from your home country, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan has a list of all the contact numbers and addresses of foreign embassies www.mofa.go.jp.


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