23.10.2023 Update

What Surprises and Characterizes Life in Japan? Introduction to Japanese Customs and Traits!

"Curious about what you might find surprising in Japan?" or "Interested in learning about Japanese lifestyle habits and culture?" This column explains in detail aspects like dining and toilet etiquette, Japanese characteristics, and more. It also offers insights into the costs of living in Japan for a month and things to be mindful of.


Surprising Aspects of Life in Japan

Japan holds a range of customs that might surprise newcomers, such as "no shoes indoors" and "no tipping." Etiquette around meals and bathing, along with differences in culture, can be eye-opening. Additionally, high prices and unique work styles are also aspects that astonish foreigners. The following provides a more in-depth exploration:

Distinct Manners and Customs Compared to Abroad

Dining Etiquette

Many Japanese people say "itadakimasu" before eating and "gochisousama deshita" after finishing. These expressions signify gratitude not only towards the cook but also towards those who cultivated and produced the ingredients. In contrast, in Christian cultures, praying to God before meals serves a different purpose than in Japan.
During meals, it's customary to hold the dish in your hand close to your mouth. Leaning over the dish on the table while eating is considered impolite and is called "inu-gui" (eating like a dog). Conversely, in some cultures, holding dishes during meals is seen as bad manners. Given these differences, it's important to be mindful when living in Japan.

Toilet Etiquette

In public restrooms in Japan, unoccupied stalls often have open doors. However, in private homes, it's customary to close the door of an unused restroom. Some foreign cultures leave restroom doors open in homes to signal vacancy. When using a restroom in a Japanese residence, remember to close the door after use.
Public restrooms in Japan are usually free to use and well-maintained. They typically have hooks or shelves for bags, preventing the need to place them on the floor.

Bathing Customs

Japanese bathrooms commonly have a separate bathing area and bathtub. Unlike some cultures where people wash themselves in the bathtub, Japanese people wash thoroughly at separate washing stations before soaking in the bathtub. It's customary to bathe in water that hasn't been used by others until all household members are finished.
Some homes have combined bathing facilities without separate washing areas, referred to as "unit baths." In such cases, washing oneself entirely in the bathtub is acceptable, similar to practices in some foreign cultures.

Communication Style

Japanese people often use acknowledgments while listening to others as a form of communication. This might feel excessive or intrusive to some foreign individuals. However, actively acknowledging and showing you're listening by responding positively is appreciated in Japanese culture.
Moreover, Japanese communication often involves understanding emotions indirectly. Apologies and expressions of gratitude both use "sumimasen" (sorry/excuse me). This makes conversations intricate, as context determines whether "sumimasen" implies apology or gratitude. In cultures with a habit of initiating small talk with strangers, Japan's reserved communication style might seem different.

High Cost of Living

Living costs in Japan can be surprisingly high. According to a survey by the Japan Student Services Organization, foreign students spend around 100,000 yen (about $900) per month on living expenses. This includes:

- Rent: Average of 35,000 yen ($315) nationwide, 45,000 yen ($405) in Tokyo.
- Food: Average of 28,000 yen ($250) nationwide, 30,000 yen ($270) in Tokyo.
- Utilities (electricity, gas, water): 7,000 yen ($63) nationwide, 7,000 yen ($63) in Tokyo.
- Commuting: 5,000 yen ($45) nationwide, 6,000 yen ($54) in Tokyo.
- Insurance and medical expenses: 3,000 yen ($27) nationwide, 3,000 yen ($27) in Tokyo.
- Hobbies and entertainment: 6,000 yen ($54) nationwide, 8,000 yen ($72) in Tokyo.
- Other daily expenses: 9,000 yen ($81) nationwide, 10,000 yen ($90) in Tokyo.

Additionally, students spend around 45,000 yen ($405) on study and research expenses. This amounts to about 150,000 yen ($1,350) per month. Living in major Japanese cities requires more budget compared to Western countries.

Japanese Corporate Work Environment

Transportation Expenses

In Japan, both regular employees and non-regular workers like temp staff or part-timers often receive transportation allowances. Therefore, many people use trains or buses for their commutes, even if the distance is considerable. However, some companies impose limits on the monthly transportation allowance, so it's important to check.

Termination and Resignation

Termination procedures in Japanese companies might surprise foreigners. According to the law, companies are required to provide a notice period of 30 days or more before terminating an employee. This means an employee can continue to work for at least 30 days after receiving notice. If no notice is given within 30 days, the employee is entitled to compensation equivalent to 30 days' average salary.
Similarly, voluntary resignations are not effective immediately. Employees need to transfer responsibilities and possibly train their successors. Different companies might specify the notice period, such as "▲ weeks prior notice required for resignation" in their work regulations.


Many Japanese individuals don't mind working overtime, with some considering it a sign of enthusiasm. However, due to efforts to reduce employee burden, more companies are limiting overtime and long working hours. As a result, some Japanese workers increasingly value leaving work on time and avoiding overtime.

Drinking Parties (Nomikai)

Organizing drinking parties after work is a common way for Japanese colleagues to bond. This practice can seem puzzling to those wondering why socializing with colleagues beyond working hours is necessary. For Japanese people, these parties offer opportunities to discuss work with superiors or build deeper relationships. Consequently, some companies hold frequent drinking parties. Nevertheless, in recent times, more Japanese individuals are questioning the necessity of frequent attendance, much like their foreign counterparts.

Characteristics of Japanese People from a Foreign Perspective

Reserved Expression of Emotions

Japanese people often express emotions like anger and happiness less openly compared to foreigners. Their restrained emotional expressions can make it difficult to gauge how they truly feel. Additionally, they might not always communicate their intentions clearly and sometimes say the opposite of their true feelings. For instance, when giving a gift, instead of saying "This is a great item, I'd like you to have it," they might say "It's nothing special, but…" or "I'm not sure if you'll like it…"

Kind and Considerate

Many foreigners view Japanese people as kind and considerate. While shy at times, they readily help those in need, exemplifying the concept of "omotenashi," or hospitality.

Things to Keep in Mind When Living in Japan

- Tipping isn't customary in Japan.
- Remove shoes when entering homes with "no shoes" signs.
- Keep your voice down in public spaces.
- Avoid talking on mobile phones in trains and buses.
- Respect queuing etiquette and line up properly.
- Dispose of trash in designated bins (or take it home if bins are unavailable).
- Follow traffic signals and regulations.
- Hand in lost items to the nearest police box (koban).
There are also other manners to be aware of when using chopsticks, such as "not stabbing food directly from the top" and "not holding a single piece of food between chopsticks with two or more people."


In Japan, there are several things that foreigners are often surprised by in daily life. These include "taking off shoes indoors," "not giving tips for services," and "high cost of living," which are considered representative examples. Additionally, there are many other differences such as dining etiquette and communication styles that differ from what we are accustomed to. To better understand the actions and behaviors of Japanese people, it is beneficial to learn about the underlying culture and customs.

Curator of this article

Japan Culture GuideJapan Culture Guide

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