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August 6, 2022

The First Time Travel Tips for Japan You Need to Know

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Japan is one of my favourite countries partly because there's nowhere else like it. But that does mean that you can benefit from some first time travel tips for Japan. Learn how to navigate the naked reality with this guest article on culture and etiquette in Japan.

Japan - Tohoku - Aomori - Hachinohe Emburi Festival Dancers and Scenes- wide view of children dancing

First Time Travel Tips for Japan

Japan is one of the richest cultural countries in the world. Its uniqueness comes not only from the distinctive traditions and lifestyle traits, but also the country's architecture. Japanese people tend to be strictly respectful towards their culture, and politeness is rooted deep within their education.

Therefore, you will find rigorous rules regarding attitudes and manners, so it’s important, as a tourist, to know and respect the locals by being aware of these formalities. Although the language is quite difficult to learn as an English speaker, you can at least learn the etiquette. In the following paragraphs, we’ll briefly go through Japan’s culture and language so that you can understand it better.

Japan - Tohoku - Aomori - Hachinohe Emburi Festival Dancers -Portrait of a young boy

First Time Travel Tips for Japan: Culture

In the past, Japan went through many cultural evolutions as an isolated island, and that led to its unique culture. Even if today it’s known as a leading country when it comes to technology, Japan still has a number of important traditions:

  • Tea ceremonies. Also known as Omotenashi, this experience refers to the hospitality of Japanese people with regards to tea. At every tea gathering, the guest is the centre of attention while the host prepares the tea in an intricate ritual.
  • Sumo. Japan’s most famous sport, sumo, has helped to preserve ancient traditions, from salt purification to Shinto (one of Japan’s religions). It’s believed that sumo originated from a ritual dance performed in prayer for a good harvest.
  • Places of worship. Shinto shrines are places of worship that people visit to pay respects to the gods or pray for good fortune. People usually go there at special events, like the New Year, Setsubun and other festivals. Shrines have unique designs that you’ll never see in other places.

And this is just the beginning. There is so much more to learn.

Next, we’re going to briefly dive into the Japanese language and see how difficult it is to learn.

Iconic scarlet shrine in Japan

First Time Travel Tips for Japan: The Japanese Language

The Japanese language is unique in both its alphabet and writing structure. As in most countries, you will find plenty of dialects from different regions, which can be challenging to master if you’re not used to them. Written Japanese uses the kanji characters, which are combined with Chinese characters, but there are two other writing systems in Japan, with around 2.400 characters to learn.

Grammatically speaking, there are a lot of uncommon things for English speakers. For example, the verb must be placed at the end of the sentence, and some pronouns are omitted when speaking.

The Japanese language is also remarkable for its grammatical system used for expressing politeness and formality. It starts with the level of your social status, whereby the person in a lower position is expected to use a polite form of speech, and the other one can use a plainer form. Therefore, most Japanese nouns can be more polite if you add o- or go- as a prefix.

If this sounds exhausting, know that Japanese isn’t the hardest language for an English speaker to learn. Mandarin, Arabic and Cantonese come before Japanese when it comes to difficulty. You can also study Chinese and Korean after learning Japanese because these languages are similar to each other.

Japan - Tohoku - Aomori - Hachinohe Emburi Festival Dancers and Scenes- Senior dancer

First Time Travel Tips for Japan: The etiquette around non-verbal communication

Lastly, non-verbal communication is extremely important to most Japanese people. Non-verbal cues (body language, posture, expression and tone of voice) are very important when talking to someone, so you need to pay more attention to your body and gestures. For example, here’s how people manage:

  • Refusals. Japanese people avoid direct refusals or negative responses. They would often say, “I will consider it”, even if they intend to deny it.
  • Silence. Japanese people tend to remain silent during a conversation until there’s an opening to speak. Since interrupting someone is highly disrespectful, silence is often understood as reflecting politeness and respect.
  • Compliments. Excessive compliments are a big no-no. Japanese people are very humble; therefore, they’ll politely deflect compliments.
  • Interjections. This is the way Japanese people say, “I’m listening”. They have specific interjections for agreeing (“un”, “eee”) or being surprised (“Eeee?”), so they’re not considered an interruption.

Top Non-verbal tips for Japan

But as these rules seem more obvious, there are some very specific to this culture when it comes to non-verbal behavior, such as:

  • Direct eye contact can be seen as intimidating, while indirect eye contact is common when speaking to an elder or someone in a higher position.
  • Bowing is the most common gesture of greeting, and it can also show gratitude, remorse or reverence.
  • Physical contact is preferred to be minimal, as Japanese people don’t invade someone else’s personal space.
  • Nodding is also a sign of active listening, so it’s not considered impolite.
  • Expressing emotions is usually avoided in Japan, but it’s more socially acceptable for higher-status people to express them than lower statuses.

Keigo: Respectful Speech

Talking about statuses, did you know that in Japan, there’s this kind of respectful speech (Keigo)? There are three categories of Keigo, each used in different situations:

  • Sonkeigo. This is used to demonstrate respect towards the other person. It is often used when talking to superiors (for example, an employee speaking to their boss)
  • Kensongo. Also known as “humble language”, this speech is used by people when they want to refer to themselves as lower class and show humility (business workers talking to their customers)
  • Teneigo. This is a more general speech, and it does not require a particular way of talking; it is often used among acquaintances.
Japan - Tokyo - Folded Paper Prayers

Final thoughts

Japanese culture is beautiful and full of meaning. Although the language might be difficult to learn as an English speaker, practice makes perfect! If you plan on visiting Japan or moving there at some point in your life, learning the language and the customs and etiquette will help you gain local respect, and you can live a peaceful and healthy life in Japan.


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About the author

Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more. Find out more.

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