One of the first anecdotes I ever remember hearing about Japanese culture and hospitality was from my mother. She’d been at a conference in Japan with my father and they were at a dinner in the evening. She absolutely HATES the taste of lager, and would never choose to drink it, but she was served a small glass, as is customary.
She thought: oh, I hate to waste it, they’re being so polite – so she drank the glass down, and of course, then what happened was her Japanese hosts all fell over themselves to politely refill her glass… and the same thing kept happening… so she had to drink much more lager than she would have liked!
So this was back in the mid-90s; there’s a lot more information about Japanese culture available now, and so we have the opportunity to prepare better for these unique customs before we go.
A book that came out last year is ‘Amy’s Guide to Best Behavior in Japan: Do It Right and Be Polite!’ (Amazon UK link).
This is written by Amy Chavez, who is a foreigner living in Japan for many years. She has written this book as a foreigner, for foreigners, all about the system of ‘omotenashi’ (or Japanese etiquette) which sounds like something you might not run into – but actually, this system of doing things absolutely permeates every experience in your daily life.
So I would say, this book being light and pocket sized, is a real essential for a trip to Japan – you’ll learn details that you may have had absolutely no idea you need to know about: using the toilet, about hot springs; this may not save you from walking fully clothed into an outdoor hot spring as I once did! However, you won’t go into the men’s by mistake (if you’re a woman) and that kind of thing.
So there’s a lot to know about, for example, disposing of your rubbish. Even if you are on a tour, you will be going into convenience stores buying ‘bento’ and if you don’t dispose of your rubbish properly you will antagonise the locals.
A current trend: I’ve been reading headlines about it actually, in Tokyo, is bubble tea. That’s been popular in London for quite a while in Chinatown with the tapioca pearls beads in milk tea or matcha latte.
Anyway, so these have become really popular in Tokyo and they come in a special cup with a wide straw and what’s so sensational about this at the moment is people are not disposing of those properly and it’s making people very angry because it’s a new type of rubbish – people don’t know where to put it and are leaving it all around so… if you don’t want to be told off then it’s good to know some basic things for your everyday life. It’s not just formal things. It’s essentials.
There’s also some ‘nice to know’ details in this book. Amy recommends that we get a ‘name card’ printed. This is a brilliant idea – so business cards play a big role and obviously if you’re on business, you will have your business card ready to go.
Even if you’re just going on a holiday, make it more of a once-in-a-lifetime trip by getting a name card printed perhaps with the katakana pronunciation of your name so that you can give this to friendly or curious strangers and people that you meet – to the receptionist, so they can check you in easily and maybe share something that you wouldn’t mind telling strangers such as your social media handles, or if you are blogging about your experience travelling around Japan. I think the small details like that will really enhance your trip!
So as you can tell, I absolutely recommend the book by Amy Chavez: Amy’s Guide to Best Behavior in Japan: Do It Right and Be Polite!
I’m Vanessa from JapaneseLondon.com we want to help you discover Japan – in London – so this is a series of book reviews I’ll be doing about Japan-related books.
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