A hundred years ago, travel to Asia was a prospect fraught with peril. Not only was it a trip that required weeks of transport via train, boat, or both, but once you got there you would have to deal with a language barrier and a totally different culture.
These days things are a lot easier. You can get anywhere in the world within 24 hours thanks to airline travel. And there are programs to help you learn the language before you go (thank goodness for Rosetta Stone), as well as translation pocket guides to supply you with common phrases once you get there. Plus, with the internet creating a virtual window to the world at large, you can learn all about the cultural differences and etiquette you need to observe before you get there. Here are just a few to get you started.
Whether you’re greeting someone, showing thanks, or apologizing for a slight, bowing is the proper way to express these sentiments. Although inhabitants of Japan may make concessions for westerners, shaking hands is not a common form of greeting in the country. As for the etiquette of bowing, there is a wide range of options to consider, from a small nod of the head to a full bow of 90 degrees from the waist. Generally speaking, a deeper bow conveys greater respect or obeisance. So you might bow more deeply to a boss or an elder than you would to a peer or colleague.
Traditionally, shoes are not worn inside the home. Like Mr. Rodgers, you will remove your shoes upon entering and trade them for house slippers in order to keep outside dirt and debris off the interior flooring. Your host will provide you with slippers. Interestingly, you may be required to wear different pairs of slippers within the home. Depending on how traditional the home is, you might have to swap to a new pair when entering the lavatory and then put the original pair back on when exiting. And any time you enter a room with woven tatami mats on the floor, you will probably have to take off your slippers altogether and enter barefoot or in socks.
You will find two types of toilets in Japan: eastern and western. The western toilets are the raised type you are no doubt familiar with, while the eastern, or Japanese toilets, are situated at ground level. In some cases you will find only the eastern style, and this will require you to move to the front of the toilet and squat over it (you will feel like you’re using the toilet backwards). Most public toilets do not provide toilet paper, so it behooves you to keep some with you, although you may be able to purchase it outside the restroom.
You will have to go through multiple steps in order to bathe properly. You will start by removing your clothes in the entrance and then washing and rinsing yourself with a washbowl before getting in the tub for a soak, making sure that no soap gets in the tub. Sometimes there are multiple steps to soaking and washing, but the idea is to leave the bath water clean for the next person to use.
The giving and receiving of gifts is almost an art form, so whether you’re in Japan for work, you’re pursuing PR internships, or you just need a vacation, you need to be careful about how you approach gifting. If someone offers you a gift, it is polite to take it with both hands and save it to open later (unless the gift-giver says you may open it). And when you give gifts, keep in mind that the wrapping is just as important as the gift itself. You will nearly always find wrapping services available at stores.
Sarah Danielson is a freelance writer and part time student. In her spare time she likes to go hiking and help with an animal rescue out of Los Angeles, California.