How to Look Like a Foreigner in Japan

I will always be Asian-American; the feeling of not being “Asian enough” because my parents are second/fourth generation and not being “American enough” because I’m not white is probably a feeling many of my peers can identify with. This fall I will be studying abroad in Japan and I hopefully will have improved my Japanese to full professional proficiency by the end of my program. Often in Japan I can get confused as a Japanese person by the way I dress and how ambiguously East Asian my face looks, but then when I start speaking and they notice my Japanese is a bit odd then they get confused (I actually had someone in my Japanese church ask me, “You seem to look Japanese and speak decently but you aren’t Japanese…???). In no way do I ever wish to be someone I’m not, but I believe that when participating in an exchange with the goal of immersing yourself into another culture, one ought to try to learn the subtle cultural aspects that allows him/her to seamlessly blend in. Of course I personally think there are some benefits to standing out in Japan (i.e. Maybe people will talk to you more, be a bit more graceful when you make mistakes, etc.), but here are just some things that I noticed make foreigners stand out in Japan. Some are funny and some are just interesting to me.

1. Bow at everything

I know it is tempting to bow at everything especially coming from America where everyone seems horribly rude compared to Japan, but bowing at everything makes you look weird. It always makes me laugh when I see foreigners bow like 60 degrees at the airport when the guy tells them which window to go up to at customs or when the convenient store cashier gives them the receipt from their purchase.

2. Not observing train etiquette

It takes a bit of time to be aware of the different train etiquette, but after a few rides you will notice some unsaid rules. For example, when you ride the escalator to get to and from the train platform (or any escalator for the matter) you stand on the left and pass on the right (I think it is the opposite in Kansai Region). It is not uncommon to see long perfect lines of people at busy train stations waiting for the escalator. Other train “rules” are when you enter the train you are supposed to wait for all the people to exit before you enter. This goes for elevators, too. And then of course don’t eat, talk on your phone, or listen to loud music on the train. Apparently before you traditionally weren’t supposed to put makeup on either, but lots of people do this with no stigma.

3. Not apologizing for invading personal space

Japan really values privacy and personal space more than other cultures. Other than during rush hour in the trains (and even sometimes during), if someone even just lightly tapped me or if their bag slightly went on to my seat, the person would apologize. It might not seem like a big deal, but you soon become so aware of how much space you are taking up and get in the habit of apologizing if you accidentally get too close for comfort to someone. I noticed that if someone bumped me and didn’t apologize it was 9 out of 10 times a foreigner; I became so used to people apologizing that I felt that it was “rude” when someone didn’t say anything even if it was just an accident.

4. Not throwing out trash correctly

I’m sure even Japanese people get confused and mess up on this one. Throwing out trash in Japan is way more complicated compared to America and maybe even to most other cultures. You have to separate plastic bottles, aluminum cans, burnable vs. non-burnable trash, etc. You also sometimes have to put your trash in a special plastic bag that the city recognizes and place it in a designated area that is later collected at each housing unit by the city. Unlike in America, there are no individual trash bins that families put out on their respective lawns; it is a communal effort. I’m going to admit that I’m a horrible trash thrower-awayer and have not properly educated myself on throwing away trash, but I did my best. I would often stand in front of public trash cans for a good couple minutes just rethinking if I’m throwing it away correctly and that probably made me look like a foreigner. I even once accidentally threw away trash in a not okay plastic trash bag in the designated area of my apartment and it was left there with a big note from the trash collecting people saying that it was breaking the rules. I quickly changed it without anyone noticing…oops.

5. Handing cash or credit over directly to the shopkeeper

I’m not sure why this is, but you almost never directly hand over your credit/debit card and cash over to the shopkeeper when you are checking out; there is always a rectangular type of tray that you put it in. When I first started shopping for fashion in Japan in high school I would always try to give them my debit card, but then they would look at me strange and point to the tray that I was supposed to give to them. Side note, Japanese bills are extremely clean compared to American dollars. I think they take out “dirty” money and replace it with fresh clean bills because I have yet to come across a really disgusting folded up bill yet.

6. Not taking your shoes off in the dressing room

Almost all Japanese clothing stores will make you take off your shoes when you enter the dressing room. For ladies, the dressing room also will usually have a “face cloth” that they kindly ask you use. You put the clear soft sheet (kind of feels like a giant laundry drying sheet) over your face and then you put the piece of clothing over your head. The sheet prevents your makeup from going on the clothing–genius! The first time I went shopping at Shibuya 109 I accidentally didn’t take my shoes off in one of the carpeted dressing rooms and then the lady politely reminded me to do so. However, in a lot of American or Western stores you are not required to take your shoes off (ie. H&M, Forever 21, Berksha, etc.). In addition, a lot of expensive or semi-expensive stores will walk you out after you buy something and hand you the bag once you reach the exit. I think this is to prevent you from stealing and to provide extra security.

7. Using chopsticks poorly

I mention this one because I am terrible at my chopstick usage and I get comments about this all the time. I’ve been told that I hold chopsticks like a child and it is a little embarrassing, but I’m not upset about it because I didn’t grow up using chopsticks for a whole lot of things. Besides, my grandma who has been to Japan over 200 times still doesn’t use it properly. I think I learned and copied her technique!

8. Eating and walking

Apparently eating and walking is considered rude in Japan. I’ve done it a couple of times in the morning on the go, but on the streets you will never see anyone do it. People may hold a drink and walk, but I haven’t seen too many people drink and walk either. There are not that many public trash cans and if there are they are usually right next to the automated drink machines, so I believe the expectation is for you to stop and drink it right there. I actually kind of like this rule because it eliminates trash and possible health hazards like choking. In addition, people do not smoke and walk. This is actually a huge no-no and people do get busted if a cop or a city official sees you doing it.

9. Using a ticket instead of a train pass card

I know even lots of Japanese people use the old fashion paper ticket when riding the train/subway in Japan especially if they are from an area where there are not that many train lines, but always using a ticket especially in busy stations in Tokyo definitely makes you stand out as almost everyone carries a Pasmo or Suica Card. Other than making yourself “fit in,” a train pass card is a million times more efficient and easier. All you do is load money onto it at any kiosk and tap on your way in and on your way out. Using a regular ticket is fine but it takes longer because you have to put it in the machine and take it out. Some ticket stalls don’t even take a regular ticket and only have the thing on the top to tap your cards. Even if you are just visiting Japan, I would personally suggest getting a Suica or Pasmo card if you plan on using the train/subway system extensively for 5 days or more.

10. Wearing super casual clothes in public

I have never seen anyone wear sweats or workout gear in public. People obviously workout in Japan, but I think almost everyone goes to the gym, changes there, and then changes before they come home. Most people dress extremely presentable compared to what you can get away with here in my community. I felt a little weird not wearing makeup when I went out many times due to my laziness since there seems to be this obligation that all women once they reach a certain age that they have to wear makeup whenever they leave the house. I also wore flip flops many times and I felt people staring at my choice of footwear occasionally when I entered the train and whatnot. Overall it doesn’t really manner and no one will say anything to you, but I felt that it was interesting that sweats (even cool fitted ones)  or matching sports bras and yoga pants aren’t really a thing.

Those are just a few that I have come up with over the past few days, other than the typical not being able to speak Japanese well, not knowing directions, etc. Ultimately it doesn’t matter how many “mistakes” you make as long as you have empathy and try to earnestly learn and integrate yourself into the cross-cultural experience if you are planning on doing a study abroad program like me. Thanks for reading this long post and good luck on your next journey to Japan!

P.S. are you looking for an awesome tour to Japan and don’t know where to start? Please support my grandma’s travel agency that has 5 stars on yelp! Yamato Travel Bureau


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