• Japan Tips
  • Life & Culture

Cultural Faux Pas Working in Japan, Part One


Japan is a country with a unique culture that is both illuminating and incredibly confusing at times.


The skill of reading the air in a cultural sense is not always as easy as you would think. What’s more, even with understanding what is said, there is a great deal that isn’t, which make Japan’s cultural faux pas even more tricky.


We asked our staff at Interac for their top cultural faux pas’, so, hopefully you do not make the same mistake(s), or, at the very least, you get some enjoyment out of it.


1 . Being asked for BuBuzuke (Ochazuke) in Kyoto


Mr. R: Kyoto is a beautiful place, and it is quite traditional even among Japanese people. Some of the etiquette and social discourse can be quite hard to pick up.


I had been living in Tokyo for 3 years and my friend invited me to see the Maple leaves in autumn in Kyoto. I highly recommend anyone to see them, as in their peak they are incredible, and it’s even more popular locally than seeing the cherry blossoms.


Anyway, after hanging around Kyoto, we went back to his family’s house and had the most delicious Japanese homemade meal I have ever had.


Fresh Sashimi, sushi, you name it and it was there. Anyway, the night got later, the food disappeared and my friend’s mother asked if I would like “Bubuzuke”.


Without missing a beat, I said “Oh yes, please.” Her face dropped and a stiff reply “I see. Wait here”. On the other hand, the father was laughing so hard he had tears coming down his face.


When I asked what happened, my friend told me, that asking a guest in Kyoto at the end of dinner like this, is a set phrase of asking the guest politely to leave.


I still haven’t forgiven myself, even after we all have laughed about it many times since then. Now when I visit Kyoto I often bring Ochazuke omiage as a joke.


2. Pouring drinks (particularly alcohol)


Mr. R: When I first came to Japan, I was working as an ALT in Nagasaki and on my first night in Japan, I was invited by one of my schools to an Enkai (drinking party).


The night was a lot of fun, and I remember toward the middle of it, sitting down next to the principal and being poured some Sake (rice wine).


Now, in Japan, it is rude to pour your glass of alcohol in formal situations.


I knew this, but what I didn’t know initially was if you pour someone else’s glass, they will reciprocate.


What’s more, although I can’t say if it is an Australian custom or just something I was taught – I firmly believe it is rude to leave a half-empty glass.


The ending result was I would pour the principal a glass, and he would pour me a glass, I would finish the drink, and he would pour me a glass, so I felt that I should pour him another glass.


Thinking about it now, it must have looked quite funny to people walking past and within a couple of hours, the principal and I were quite jolly.


The night concluded with a Nijikai (after party) at a Karaoke place, where the principal asked me to join him in a duet singing ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon.


You honestly cannot make this up. It to this day is still one of my fondest memories of Japan, even if it was a cultural misunderstanding.


3. Wearing shoes indoors, wearing awful socks to work, and stealing slippers


Mr. O: There are many cultural mistakes you can make in everyday life in Japan, and although most of the time people will just laugh, it is still a good idea to make an effort to save yourself the embarrassment.


However, when it comes to shoes and slippers, I must admit I that I made many mistakes.


The first is taking your shoes off. In Japan, it is quite common if you enter a house, school, dojo, tatami room, etc., that you remove your shoes. I did not do this when visiting my school on the first day, and while I was in the staffroom I remember the office lady sliding the door suddenly and flying into the office saying “someone entered with shoes! There is dirt everywhere”.


The room fell silent, and what followed was an around-the-room type investigating that would have put Poirot to shame. Eventually out of guilt I confessed, and everyone laughed before explaining the situation.


As a result, I recommend that you don’t wear shoes indoors. If you enter a building and there are wooden slats on the floor, look around for the shoe cupboards, they are likely nearby.


If in doubt, try to look at what the rest of the Japanese people nearby are doing.


Don’t forget to wear neutral socks!


Another situation many years later came when I went to meet an important business client. We had closed the deal and were going to a very traditional restaurant to celebrate.


However, I did not think this through and had not done my washing, so the only socks I had were rainbow colors, with phrases like “Wow” and “so cool”. As a result, when we all took our shoes off, I remember the client double-taking and looking at my socks before smiling, and my manager looking like he was about to turn me into some sashimi.


Finally, another footwear faux pas is walking out with the toilet slippers. In Japan, when you go to a bathroom, there are usually slippers to wear into the bathroom.


Although I have never made this mistake, this is indeed a very common one that Japanese people even make at times, particularly, if they are drinking and celebrating at an Enkai type party.


4. Enjoying your food


Ms. T: I am not sure if this was a faux pas, but initially one time a friend of mine very kindly made an osechi (formal New Year’s traditional cuisine) set and invited me to eat it with her, over the new year break as her family was travelling overseas.


I had read about osechi, but I didn’t realize how much work goes into sourcing and making your own. Seriously, no one does it, because it is immensely difficult if not incredibly expensive.


However, my friend always liked to try challenging recipes, so she made a great osechi. When we started to eat it, I was impressed with how good it was, and I said it was great. I know my friend had made such an effort with cooking this that I wanted to focus on enjoying it, so I fell silent for a minute while I ate.


When I looked up I was surprised to see my friend looking very sad. She asked me if I didn’t like it. Surprised, I said no, it was incredible! However, she admitted she was hoping for a bigger reaction. In the end, everything worked out well, and we both learned this was a cultural difference.


However, I see this all the time in Japan. People in Japan, love to make great gestures when they are eating food they enjoy. Many people will be slurping noodles away without a care in the world at their favorite ramen shop. What’s more, many TV programs in Japan show the host eating something followed by always followed by ‘Oishii’ or ‘Umai’.


Extra note, I don’t think this is just food.


Japanese people are very proud of their culture, and they want to share it with anyone interested. I have also been to some shrines recently, and seen similar reactions from other groups when the foreign friend sees the temple and says ‘cool’ and moves on. I think they want to see big gestures of excitement.


So be sure to make the extra effort and show your appreciation.


5. Cutting lines


Ms. K: I think it is safe to say that in most cultures cutting the line is not an appropriate action to take.


However, what makes this tricky in Japan is sometimes the area where people line up is not as immediately obvious as you would think. I learned this the hard way when I was in a convenience store and accidentally walked up directly to the register, instead of looking at the floor and lining up to the far right.


I honestly, didn’t even see the markings but there they were. Nevertheless, I was told off by an upset elderly man. I apologized saying ‘sumimasen’ and have since made an effort to always like for the line.


What’s more, if you find yourself in a crowded festival there will almost certainly be ‘yatai’ (food stands) everywhere. These also can have hidden lines, and can stretch quite long, so be sure to keep your eyes out for it.


The best thing you can do in this situation is ask, 行列はどこからですか (Gyouretsu wa doko kara desu ka), and you will likely be pointed politely to the end of the line.



Well, we hope that these 5 anecdotes have given you some clarity into what type of Japan faux pas and misunderstandings you may find living in Japan.


Do any surprise you? What are some cultural mishaps that you have found yourself in?


Be sure to check out our blog regularly for part 2, and if you are interested in living and working in Japan?  Check out ALT jobs with Interac.