In Japanese, the word for a “foreigner” is Gaikokujin, a somewhat formal term used by the government and news media. More informally, you’ll sometimes hear the term Gaijin, often used in connection with a foreigner who is mindlessly doing something that contradicts Japanese etiquette.
As a temporary resident of Japan, I try to avoid having Gaijin moments. Trying to understand the culture and avoid social faux pas is important any place, and particularly in a country that places such high value on manners and respect.
The following are some observations I’ve made to help avoid being labelled as a Gaijin.
- Escalator etiquette. In Tokyo, it’s customary to stand on the left of an escalator, leaving space on the right for people who want to walk. It’s a sure Gaijin sign to stand on the right, or, more egregiously, to stand on one side and allow your luggage to block the other. But note that in Osaka and Kyoto, everyone stands on the right. I’ve read various reasons for the difference. When in doubt, be observant and follow the crowd. And also… be mindful of the queue. Don’t cut in line.
- Train talk. The trains in Tokyo are often very crowded. But even with space at a premium, you’ll notice that the trains are very quiet. Seldom do you hear loud conversations, and there are signs that request that you mute mobile phones and avoid talking on the phone. Usually loud talking is coming from some Gaijin group, clueless that they are the only ones making noise.
- More about trains. With space at a premium, you’ll see that locals in Tokyo do their best to be space-efficient. People sit in one space, and keep hands, feet, and other body parts from slopping into the next person’s space. That said, there are times during rush hours when your space and the next person’s space does tend to merge. I’ve found that there is never a full train in Tokyo. Just when you think another person can’t possibly get on board, five more people will push themselves in. At rush hour, there are actually official “pushers” – all wearing white gloves – stationed on the train platforms in order to “push” people into a crowded train so that the doors can close. About the only non-Gaijin way to react is to take a deep breath and try to think as skinny as possible… and try not to complain about being more up-close-and-personal with your fellow passengers than you might ever want to be.
- Eating and drinking. Japan has a wonderful selection of food and drink. That’s the good news. For Westerners, the bad news is that it’s frowned upon to eat and drink while walking down the street – and smoking and walking is a definite no-no! Unless you’re at a festival, most of the time you don’t see people eating at places other than in restaurants, or just outside of a convenience store – and smoking is prohibited except for designated “smoking areas.” And almost no one ever eats or drinks on the subways and city trains, which is probably one reason the trains stay so clean.
- And speaking of clean… It is rare to find a public trash receptacle in Tokyo. They are almost non-existent. Yet, there is very little trash on the streets of Tokyo. Japan, overall, is probably one of the cleanest, least trashy countries you will ever see. Part of the culture here is respect for others. Throwing trash on the ground or in the streets is disrespectful to the millions of other people inhabiting this city – and this country – and hey… this planet! People take their trash with them until they can find a proper place to dispose of it. This would be a good lesson for the rest of the world… seems to me.
- Schedules. The Japanese tend to be very prompt, and everything works on schedule. I once saw a news article where a train company was apologizing because a train left the station 20 seconds ahead of schedule. It’s a definite Gaijin moment if you arrive late to a meeting or other scheduled event.
- Hashi (chopsticks). Chopsticks are the normal utensils for eating in Japan, and they really aren’t hard to learn to use. But, it’s considered rude to pass food from one pair of chopsticks to another, or to grab a bowl with chopsticks and move it. Pointing at someone with your chopsticks is also bad manners. And don’t ever stand chopsticks upright into a bowl of rice, or make an “x” with them, as it is similar to a ritual performed at funerals and considered quite inappropriate.
In the course of your time in Japan, you are bound to have a Gaijin moment or two. For the most part, Japanese people are tolerant and polite, and almost never criticize or vocally reprimand Gaijin behavior. As I continue to learn about this fascinating culture, I hope to learn some of the less obvious customs and practices. And with thought and a little good luck, I’ll keep the Gaijin moments to a minimum.