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Culture shock Japan

07 September 2016

What do you need to know before you travel to Japan? Learn more about Japanese culture and how to understand your hosts a little more.

Famous Japanese cherry blossom surrounding a red pagoda with Mt Fuji on the background
Culture, history and ultra modernity make Japan an intriguing destination.

Writer Simon Godly shares his experiences from Japan and tells us why it's important to polish up on Japanese culture before you travel.

The importance of saving face

On my ride home after a very relaxing day soaking up some spring sunshine with a book in Kenroku-en garden on the western coast of Japan, I managed to take a spectacular tumble off my bike.

Had I been back in England, I’m pretty sure the least reaction I would have received would have been a mix of incredulous and exasperated looks, most probably followed up with either light jeering, or offers of aid depending on how seriously injured I appeared.

Firstly, there wasn’t any jeering, which I was quite thankful for. But neither was there a hand to help me up.  

While a smart lady in her forties didn’t quite walk over me, she did come very close. So did the young couple who came after her.

As I pulled myself back to my feet and looked about myself sheepishly I didn’t see a single person look at me, nor did I discern the barest hint of a smile. At the time I was a little confused and a little hurt at the cold indifference I was shown.

On reflection...

As I reflected on this behaviour during the remainder of my ride home it occurred to me that I had read about this part of Japanese culture before I had arrived in the country: the idea that saving or losing face is very important in Japan.

Given a situation where a person might seem embarrassed, the polite thing to do is to limit the bruising of the person’s ego.

Had the smart lady or the young couple stopped to help me, they would be highlighting my mistake and potentially embarrassing me.

Not only that; as I was clearly a foreigner, they in turn may have been embarrassed if their language skills weren’t up to helping me. Rather than being indifferent, the people were in fact being considerate.

Knowing how important maintaining dignity is to the people of Japan is important for a traveller to bear in mind, especially as the circumstances in which one might lose face may be a little different to one’s own country.

Generally speaking, the people of Japan give foreigners a good amount of leeway with potential errors in etiquette and it’s certainly not something to feel anxious about.

Related: Discover a mix of traditional culture, fascinating history and ultra-modernity on a holiday to Japan.

How to get help when you do need it

That said, if you’re lost or need help, don’t expect someone to come to your aid without being asked. I’m not saying they won’t: if a Japanese person is comfortable with foreigners they may offer you a hand, especially if they’re a student who wants to practise their English.

As with any country, attitudes vary from region to region but as a general rule, if you need help, you’re going to have to ask for it.

The surprising thing is that once you summon up the courage to say ‘sumimasen’ (which translates as ‘sorry’, or ‘excuse me’) to a person, they will do their utmost to solve your problem.

Despite their reputation of rigid politeness, I’ve found that Japan is a place where I can absolutely count on the kindness of strangers.

I’ve had a pair of women in their sixties escort me half way across the district of Harajuku in Tokyo because I couldn’t find my bus station. Admittedly, they didn’t know where the bus station was either, but they got me there in the end.

My point, laboured as it is, is that while the concept of ‘face’ is important in Japanese culture, this does not make the people any less friendly. A traveller simply needs to be aware that they may need to make the first move.

Technology and tradition

Japan has long been associated with technology; when you think about Tokyo, you may conjure the image of Akihababra, Electric City, in your mind.

While the country is on the leading edge of innovation and the early adoption of technology, anyone travelling to Japan should be aware that they’re not necessarily going to be confronted by a science fiction utopia the moment they step off of the plane.

On one hand, automation is found throughout Japan’s towns and cities in the form of vending machines.

These are both ubiquitous and varied, dispensing not only foodstuffs but useful items such as batteries and ties, though I can assure you that Smart Car dispensers are in the minority.

On the other hand, should you visit a bank you can expect to see far more people working there than in a similar establishment in Britain; while there is a similar level of automation as far as ATMs are concerned, the hive of activity in the office suggests a paper based system is still running strong.

That said, robots are being developed to take on the customer service role at banks, so if you walk into the right shop, perhaps you will be served by an android.

Why you should take a trip on the bullet train

No matter what your expectations are, the experience of taking a trip on the Shinkansen (bullet train) is one to be take advantage of wherever possible.

It’s an eerie sensation to be moving so quickly, so close to the ground, with very little mechanical sound beyond the low hum of the motors. Combined with the breath-taking scenery it creates a unique journey and an ideal way to reach amazing cities, which would take much longer to get to using conventional transport.

While Japan is closely associated with new technology, its strong traditions are no less famous. Again, there can be a disparity between expectations and the reality of modern Japan.

Generally speaking, you’re not likely to cross paths with a geisha in the city streets: if you want to see Japanese culture you’re going to have to look a little bit harder for it.

Find traditional Japanese culture in Kyoto

While a number of cities can show you traditional Japan, the ideal place to find it – especially if you have limited time – is Kyoto. As the former capital, there are a large number of architecturally beautiful buildings set amongst some of the most stunning gardens in the world.

It also boasts the Gion area, where you’re comparatively likely to catch a glimpse of the elusive geisha.

While in Kyoto it would be an ideal time to go to the theatre and see a Kabuki production or take a short train ride to Osaka to watch a sumo match.

On the subject of sport, if traditional activities aren’t your cup of tea, the people of Japan have embraced a whole range of sports, most particularly baseball and football. These are often overlooked by tourists but form an important part of the culture of Japan nevertheless.

Indeed, a full range of less traditional entertainment is available: just because you’re in Japan it doesn’t mean you have to miss out on contemporary theatre, ballet or concerts!

Related: Read our article about traditional Japanese culture in Kyoto.


Several Japanese festivals are internationally famous, leading people to visit them with certain expectations.

Happily, these expectations are largely met.

One of the most spectacular is the Sapporo Snow Festival in early February, which boasts hundreds of sculptures and displays created by organisations and groups from the area.

The array of designs is outstanding and the technical skill required is obviously very high. The communal effort put into the festivals, be it through neighbourhood, religious or corporate groups, is mirrored in festivals throughout the country.

I’ve always found the Japanese sense of community to be really quite inspiring, especially considering their often punishing work schedules, and the fireworks, floats and displays they create show a high degree of pride in their work.

The festivals vary a lot in tone, from those full of noise and frenetic activity to others which are profoundly sedate in comparison.

It’s always worth doing some research ahead of time to find out which you are heading into.

With the larger festivals such as the cherry blossom festival, Hanami, it’s possible to have the best of both worlds.

People bring their picnics and converge on the parks in large numbers and while the younger crowd will have dancing and loud music, there will also be much calmer areas to relax and admire the blooming flowers.

The festival does rely very much on the weather and the ‘blossom front’ is heavily monitored as the trees come into bloom, starting in the south and moving north.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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