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  1. Woman of the arts

    A geisha performs a Japanese traditional dance Asakusa, Tokyo's ancient entertainment district. (Yoshikazu Tsuno / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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    The Akihabara District is a renowned shopping destination for computer and electronic goods. (Koichi Kamoshida / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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updated 6/19/2006 1:09:49 PM ET 2006-06-19T17:09:49

Because of its physical isolation and the fact that it was never successfully invaded before World War II, Japan is one of the most homogeneous nations in the world. Almost 99% of Japan's population is Japanese, with hardly any influx of other genes into the country since the 8th century. The Japanese feel they belong to one huge tribe different from any other people on earth. A Japanese will often preface a statement or opinion with the words "We Japanese," implying that all Japanese think alike and that all people in the world can be divided into two groups, Japanese and non-Japanese.

While in the West the recipe for a full and rewarding life seems to be that elusive attainment of "happiness," in Japan it's the satisfactory performance of duty and obligation. Individuality in Japan is equated with selfishness and a complete disregard for the feelings and consideration of others. The Japanese are instilled with a sense of duty toward the group -- whether it be family, friends, coworkers, or Japanese society as a whole. In a nation as crowded as Japan, such consideration of others is essential, especially in Tokyo, where space is particularly scarce.

Meeting the Japanese--If you've been invited to Japan by some organization or business, you will receive the royal treatment and most likely be wined and dined so wonderfully and thoroughly that you'll never want to return home. If you've come to Tokyo on your own as an ordinary tourist, however, your experiences will depend largely on you. Although the Japanese will sometimes approach you to ask whether they might practice their English with you, for the most part you are left on your own unless you make the first move.

The best way to meet the Japanese is to participate in a super program launched by the Japan National Tourist Organization called the Home Visit System, which offers overseas visitors the opportunity to visit an English-speaking Japanese family in their home. Upon request, you might even be paired with a family with the same occupation as yours. It doesn't cost anything, and the visit usually takes place for 2 hours in the evening beginning at 7 p.m. (dinner is not served). It's a good idea to bring a small gift, such as flowers, fruit, or something from your hometown. Unfortunately, Tokyo does not participate in the Home Visit System, but two nearby cities that do are Narita (tel. 0476/34-6251 or 0476/24-3198) and Yokohama (tel. 045-441-7300). Reservations must be made at least 24 hours to 2 days in advance.

Another way to meet the Japanese is to go where they play, namely Tokyo's countless bars and eateries. There, you'll often find people who know some English and will want to practice it on you, as well as more inebriated people who want to talk to you whether they know English or not. If you're open to them, such chance encounters may prove to be highlights of your trip.

Alternatively, check ads in Tokyo Notice Board for English-conversation schools. Designed to help Japanese improve their English, the schools often offer social hours and events, admitting English-speaking foreigners for free or at a discount. One such school is Com'Inn, 1-3-9 Ebisu Minami (tel. 03/3710-7063; www.cominn-jp.com; station: Ebisu), open daily from 3 to 10pm. Foreigners are welcome to join conversations for ¥500 ($4.15), which includes coffee or tea. Parties are staged two evenings a month with all you can eat and drink for ¥2,000 ($17). To find the school, take the west exit of JR Ebisu Station and follow the road alongside Doutour coffee shop; it will be in the next block on the corner to the left.

Finally, you can request the services of a volunteer Goodwill Guide for free guided tours of Nikko (tel. 0288/54-2027), Yokohama (tel. 03/3201-3331), Kamakura (tel. 090/9845-1290) and other cities in Japan. Reservations for a guide should be made 1 week in advance; all you need pay is the guide's travel expenses, admission fees to sights, and meals.

Minding Your P's & Q's--When European merchants and missionaries began arriving in Japan almost 400 years ago, the Japanese took one look at them and immediately labeled them barbarians. After all, these hairy and boisterous outsiders rarely bathed and didn't know the first thing about proper etiquette and behavior.

The Japanese, on the other hand, had a strict social hierarchy that dictated exactly how a person should speak, sit, bow, eat, walk, dress, and live. Failure to comply with the rules could bring swift punishment and sometimes even death. More than one Japanese literally lost his head for committing a social blunder.

Of course, things have changed since then, and the Japanese have even adopted some of the Western barbarians' customs. However, what hasn't changed is that the Japanese still attach much importance to proper behavior and etiquette, which developed to allow relationships to be as frictionless as possible -- important in a country as crowded as Japan. The Japanese don't like confrontations, and although I'm told they do occur, I've never seen a fight in Japan.

One aspect of Japanese behavior that sometimes causes difficulty for foreigners is that the Japanese find it very hard to say no. They're much more apt to say that your request is very difficult to fulfill; or else they'll beat around the bush without giving a definite answer. At this point you're expected to let the subject drop. Showing impatience, anger, or aggressiveness rarely gets you anywhere in Japan. Apologizing sometimes does. And if someone does give in to your request, you can't say thank you often enough.

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Bowing -- The main form of greeting in Japan is the bow rather than the handshake. Although at first glance it may seem simple enough, the bow -- together with its implications -- is actually quite complicated. The depth of the bow and the number of seconds devoted to performing it, as well as the total number of bows, depend on who you are and to whom you're bowing. In addition to bowing in greeting, the Japanese also bow upon departing and to express gratitude. The proper form for a bow is to bend from the waist with a straight back and to keep your arms at your sides, but as a foreigner you'll probably feel foolish and look pretty stupid if you try to imitate what the Japanese have spent years learning. A simple nod of the head is enough. Knowing that foreigners shake hands, a Japanese may extend a hand but probably won't be able to stop from giving a little bow as well. The Japanese will bow even when speaking to an invisible someone on the telephone.

Visiting Cards -- You're a nonentity in Japan if you don't have a business or visiting card, called a meishi. Everyone from housewives to plumbers to secretaries to bank presidents carries meishi with them to give out upon introduction. If you're trying to conduct business in Japan, you'll be regarded suspiciously if you don't have business cards. As a tourist you don't have to have business cards, but it certainly doesn't hurt, and the Japanese will be greatly impressed by your preparedness. The card should have your address and occupation on it. As a nice souvenir, you might consider having your meishi made in Japan with the Japanese syllabic script (katakana) written on the reverse side.

The proper way to present a meishi depends on the status of the two people involved. If you are both of equal status, you exchange meishi simultaneously; otherwise, the lower person on the totem pole presents the meishi first and delivers it underneath the card being received, to show deference. Turn it so that the other person can read it (that is, upside down to you) and present it with both hands and a slight bow. Afterward, don't simply put the meishi away. Rather, it's customary for both of you to study the meishi for a moment and, if possible, to comment on it (such as "You're from Kyoto? My brother lived in Kyoto!" or "Sony! What a famous company!").

Shoes -- Nothing is so distasteful to the Japanese as the bottoms of shoes, and therefore shoes are taken off before entering a home, a Japanese-style inn, a temple, and even some museums and restaurants. Usually, there will be plastic slippers at the entranceway for you to slip on, but whenever you encounter tatami floors you should remove even these slippers -- only bare feet or socks are allowed to tread upon tatami.

Restrooms present another whole set of slippers. If you're in a home or Japanese inn, you'll notice a second pair of slippers -- again plastic or rubber -- sitting just inside the restroom door. Step out of the hallway plastic shoes and into the bathroom slippers and wear these the whole time you're in the bathroom. When you're finished, change back into the hallway slippers. If you forget this last changeover, you'll regret it -- nothing is as embarrassing as walking into a room wearing toilet slippers and not realizing what you've done until you see the mixed looks of horror and mirth on the faces of the Japanese.

Guest Etiquette -- If you are invited to a Japanese home, you should know it is both a rarity and an honor. Most Japanese consider their homes too small and humble for entertaining guests, which is why there are so many restaurants, coffee shops, and bars. If you are lucky enough to get an invitation, don't show up empty-handed. Bring a small gift, such as candy, fruit, flowers, or a souvenir of your hometown. Alcohol is also appreciated.

Instead of being invited to a private home, you may be invited out for dinner and drinks, especially if you're in Japan on business, in which case your hosts may have an expense account. In any event, it's nice to reciprocate by taking them out later to your own territory, say, to a French or other Western-style restaurant, where you'll feel comfortable playing host.

If you're with friends, the general practice is to divide the check equally among everyone, no matter how much or little each person consumed.

In any case, no matter what favor a Japanese has done for you -- whether it was giving you a small gift, buying you a drink, or making a telephone call for you -- be sure to give your thanks profusely the next time you meet. The Japanese think it odd and rude not to be remembered and thanked upon your next meeting, even if a year has elapsed.

Other Customs -- When the Japanese give back change, they hand it to you in a lump sum rather than counting it out. Trust them. It's considered insulting for you to stay there and count it in front of them because you are insinuating that they will cheat you. The Japanese are honest. It's one of the great pleasures of being in their country.

Don't blow your nose in public if you can help it, and never at the dinner table. It's considered disgusting. On the other hand, even though the Japanese are very hygienic, they are not averse to spitting on the sidewalk. And even more peculiar, men often urinate when and where they want, usually against a tree or a wall and most often after a night of carousing in the bars.

This being a man's society, men will walk in and out of doors and elevators before women, and in subways will often sit down while their wives stand. Some Japanese men, however, who have had contact with the Western world, will make a gallant show of allowing a Western woman to step out of the elevator or door first.

For more on Tokyo, visit our complete guide online at www.frommers.com/destinations/tokyo.

Frommer’s is America’s bestselling travel guide series. Visit Frommers.com to find great deals, get information on over 3,500 destinations, and book your trip. © 2006 Wiley Publishing, Inc. Republication or redistribution of Frommer's content is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Wiley.

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