Japan has many interesting things to offer for the avid traveler. Nature, history, cuisine, you could not name everything. On top of that, many fellow Japan-enthusiasts will surely agree, the stories you hear from other foreigners can range from interesting, over stunning to downright hilarious. Many foreigners find themselves in situations where they, for example, suddenly encounter their own lack of cultural understanding or knowledge. They might not even have noticed it and probably meant no harm at all (let’s leave out the part where we regularly make complete fools of ourselves).
You try hard not to make mistakes that will brand you as an uneducated foreigner, but sometimes it just happens. It is most likely that Japanese people are much more forgiving than we imagine, but the horrors that some of us get taught in university about Do’s and Don’t’s in Japan can haunt you on the train, in the restaurant or in your sleep. When I first came to Japan, I held the firm belief that every Japanese person in the world would hate me if I even so much as tried to blow my nose in public. It was only later that I learned, that you can actually do it if you just use a bit of common sense. Japanese people do it, too! It is true that there are a lot of rules in Japan and some of these rules might seem hard to understand for foreigners. The first time in Japan, I was really nervous about these rules. Definitely more than I should have been. It is hard to enjoy yourself when the angst creeps up on you (my first time in a public bath felt like walking over hot ashes). But I had a rather positive encounter during the year that I studied in Tokyo.
Even if most Japanese people will forgive us for our mistakes, some might be happy if we try hard to follow their understanding of manners.
After finishing an evening class on a hot summer day, me and a few friends decided to hit the Izakaya. It was a small place with only us and a few Japanese business men. We were joking around and drinking quite a bit. I was just coming back from the restroom, which had floor panels in front of the door so you can change into the toilet slippers, wearing said slippers. I turned around, slipped out of the slippers backward, thus leaving them with the front pointing towards the restroom door so the next person can easily slip inside. As I step up, one of the Japanese business men, who was on his way to the toilet, looked at me and said: “That is amazing! Thank you very much for respecting Japanese culture.” He then proceeded to shake my hand and told me that he is really impressed by foreigners who not only learn Japanese, but also try to protect Japanese manners. I was completely caught off guard by his reaction (that was surely fueled by the beers that he had) and went back to our table after thanking him. He then came and sat at our table for the next hour and drank and talked with us, leaving his colleagues alone.
This encounter made me realize something. Even if most Japanese people will forgive us for our mistakes, some might be happy if we try hard to follow their understanding of manners. Even though they might not always tell us, I am sure it is much appreciated.
But losing your own cultural identity can be frustrating. I try to protect as much of my own culture as possible, while living inside Japanese culture. While I do not want to go into the rather complicated problem of defining what culture is, I am sure that many people have realized that culture bubbles exist everywhere and that no country can be summarized under just one cultural definition. But there will be overlaps that make out the majority of a countries cultural understanding. I think it is rather important to find a balance between your own and the “other” culture. For example, even though I will take my shoes of before I enter a house, I will never try to slurp my ramen. Where I come from this is considered bad manners. Even though I do not think of it that way when I see Japanese people doing it, knowing that their culture does not have such a view on that particular behavior, I want to protect that part of my own culture, even if just for myself.
So, if you are planning on coming to Japan or if you are already here, you do not have to become Japanese. You might even start disliking it if you try too hard. But being thoughtful in places where rules are to be followed can earn you bonus points with the locals and also help yourself to understand culture. Also, in areas where rules are very important, you will usually find an English translation (or a funny attempt) of said rules.
Be smart, have fun, and do not worry too much.