Crash Course In Japanese Culture

You’re never really quite prepared for the first time you face off against a squatty potty, but a crash course in Japanese culture, customs, and common practices can minimize the shock factor.

Japanese Seasons and Holidays

To start your crash course in Japanese culture, you should know that much of Japan gets the spring, summer, fall, and winter you might recognize, but you also get two bonus seasons! From late March to about the middle of April, everything starts to bloom (oh, hey there, allergies). The most coveted spring bloom is the cherry blossom. If you’re planning to get up close and personal with the pink blossoms, just expect to be elbow-to-elbow with everyone else in Japan.

Not long after the cherry blossom pics fade from your Facebook feed, you’ll start seeing umbrellas on sale. Buy one. Actually, buy several because rainy season is coming. Depending on where you are in Japan, rainy season can start in early June and run all the way through July.

Don’t forget to check the calendar before making travel plans or before even running errands. Japanese holidays can mean large crowds and road, business, or parking lot closures. New Year’s Day is a biggie (no surprises there), but Golden Week — a whole lineup of holidays rolled into one week — can mean a whole lot of travel headaches.

Getting Around

Driving around Japan means sitting on the opposite side of the car and driving on the left side of the road. It’s worth noting that the controls for the wipers and turn signals are reversed too. It’s easy to spot the new arrivals — they’ll give you the wiper wave at a four-way stop.

You might also doubt the intelligence of your GPS when it tells you to turn down something that you’re certain is just an alley. Chances are it is, in fact, a road. Better yet, it’s probably a two-way street — cue the sweaty palms and white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel!

Japanese pedestrians and cyclists are fearless, and they start young. It’s not uncommon to see kids as young as 5 or 6 years old walking to school alone! As you approach a crosswalk in your sweet Japanese wheels and a pedestrian raises a hand up toward you, they aren’t waving at you; they’re saying, “Hey! I’m about to cross the street, so stop for me.” Anticipate this and be ready to stop.

Japanese traffic signs might require a bit of a cram session before testing for your Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) license. Most are pretty self-explanatory even without knowing the language. The biggest differences are:

  • The stop signs look like solid-red yield signs.
  • The speed limit is posted in kilometers (but, that’s OK because so is your speedometer).
  • You must stop at all railroad crossings.
  • You’ll learn to use the convex mirrors to help you navigate oncoming traffic on the narrow, winding mountain roads and blind intersections.

Driving is not the preferred method of transportation around Japan. The mass-transit system is like a well-oiled machine, whether you’re hopping on a local train or the bullet train (shinkansen). If you do plan to drive and you plan to get to point B on the fastest route possible, you’re going to pay tolls. Many toll booths accept credit cards (or card-o as it’s often referred to — like a Japanese-Spanish-English fusion), but it doesn’t hurt to keep some yen on hand in case you stumble on one that doesn’t. If you don’t use the yen for toll fare, you’ll probably need it for parking when you arrive at your destination.


Japan is all about the multilevel store, even in rural areas, like Iwakuni. But, one building doesn’t necessarily mean one store. Taking an item from the first floor to the fourth floor might be harmless in one store, but it might make you a thief in another store, and that is something you don’t want to be in Japan (or anywhere, really). When in doubt, pay before you leave a floor or a section of a store that seems separate from the rest. Registers are usually easy to spot.

When you do head to the register, place your credit “card-o” or yen in the payment tray after hearing your total. The tray is an efficiency thing — since so much of the Japanese currency is in coin form, it keeps money contained so coins aren’t rolling around willy-nilly. If you forget, it’s not a huge deal though, so don’t sweat it. If you pay in cash and get change back (how often does anyone really have exact change), the cashier will count it back to you.


Now we’re talking — ramen, sushi, okonomiyaki, hai!

When you go to a restaurant in Japan, and you look like a foreigner, they will likely provide you an English (or Engrish) menu (if they have it). If they don’t, pictures will be your friend! Pointing gets the job done.

You’ll most likely eat with chopsticks, but you might be offered a fork or spoon depending on the dish and the restaurant. If you’re having ramen for dinner, you can basically do what mom told you never to do at the table: slurp (extra points for sound effects) and hold the bowl closer to your face. It can get messy, but when you realize how delicious it is, you won’t even mind abandoning your manners.

Crash Course In Japanese Culture

Your server will bring your food, and then it is up to you to initiate the next encounter. Don’t expect your server to pop by periodically to ask if you need refills or more napkins or dessert. Many restaurants have call buttons that you can use — don’t worry, it’s not considered rude. So, when you need something or you’re ready for the bill, push the button or politely flag down your server.

Pay your bill, but do not tip! The Japanese do every job the best they possibly can. Tipping is considered disrespectful. If you live on base, though, keep in mind you’re living in America in Japan, so tipping is expected there.Crash Course In Japanese Culture

Common Practices

Some day-to-day practices are just different in Japan:

  • Don’t be late. People and trains will be on time. You should be too.
  • Line up. Whether you need a taxi or you’re boarding a train, get in line and wait your turn.
  • Bow to say hello, goodbye, or thank you. As a reference, you can base the length and depth of your bow on the person you’re interacting with.
  • Remove your shoes. You’re expected to remove your shoes before entering someone’s home, before stepping on tatami mats, and before entering some public buildings (like community centers or restaurants). In public buildings, you may find cubbies to place your shoes and slippers you are welcome to borrow. If that grosses you out, you can purchase your own pair at the 100 yen store (Japan’s superior version of the dollar store).
  • Interpret no. To avoid saying no, you may be told “later,” but translate stalling to mean no. When someone does give you a hard no, it will probably be expressed in body language by forming an “X” with forearms.
  • Plan for an entire day. When the Japanese host or attend events, they’re expecting a full day. If you ever attend a picnic or lunch, it likely won’t be an hour or two. You’ll be there the better part of a day.
  • Separate your trash. In your home or when out and about, you will need to separate your trash. If, while you’re out, you don’t see a trash can, you’ll need to bring it home with you. It’s a good idea to keep some plastic grocery bags in the car in case you need a trash bag in a pinch.
  • Embrace the toilets. While exploring Japan, you’ll see everything from a medieval trench in the bathroom floor (the squatty potty) to some futuristic contraption with more buttons than a TV remote control. Squatty potties look more intimidating than they really are. If that is your only option, just straddle it and squat low! If you get the mac daddy of toilets, though, clean that seat with the provided seat sanitizer, and sit your rear end right on that luxurious, heated seat. Enjoy the ambiance provided by the motion-activated white noise and wonder why the heck America doesn’t have public bathrooms like this.
Staying a while? Read Living Like a Local: MCAS Iwakuni, Japan.
Crash Course In Japanese Culture

Photo Credits: Pixabay



We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Daily Mom Military
Daily Mom Military
Daily Mom Military is a resource dedicated to serving the unique needs of military moms. Through our website, we provide comprehensive advice for all things concerning military lives and families. Our mission is to equip these incredible women with the necessary tools, resources, and community to navigate the challenges of military life. We understand the unique struggles and triumphs that come with being a military mom and strive to be a one-stop-shop for advice, tips, and support.