Japan – a land of numerous unique and wonderful cultural quirks. You might have been told of their wonderful service or the long list of to-dos and taboos, and maybe you even know them at your fingertips. However, for those who have always wondered why, read on to delve deeper into the heart behind these cultural etiquette. 

The heart behind 5-star customer service in Japan

Coffee waitress smiling

Japan’s polished customer service isn’t limited to the high-end establishments only; you’ll find it at just about any shop.

Forget about the idea of “going the extra mile”. Okyakusama wa kamisama, which directly translates into “the guests are god”, is the ethos of the stellar customer service in Japan. Underlying this god-like treatment, however, is the heart and soul of Japanese hospitality. The public face, called Omote, should hide nashi (nothing at all). Omotenashi thus means that service should come from the bottom of the heart, without any pretence. This has been translated into the way they do just about everything – from responding with genuine interest to patience in service.

Silence is golden (and required)

Commuters in a packed subway, Japan

Remember to switch your phone to silent mode before boarding the subway.

If you travel on the subway or train in Japan (including the busy and crowded cities like Tokyo and Osaka), you will notice how quiet everyone is. Due to the long and stressful working hours in Japan, train and bus rides are regarded as personal quiet time, and silence on public transport is revered. In fact, the notion about invading people’s space and privacy is highly frowned upon in their society, and refraining from talking on the phone on public transport is one of the many representations of this. Japanese folks use their travel time to sleep, think, work, or just sit calmly and read. Of course, if you do have to answer an urgently buzzing phone call, remember to make it brief and be discreet.

Eat on the go? How about no

Food stalls in Japan

Most street food stalls have either benches or bar tables for patrons to consume their food at the stall.

The Japanese place a strong emphasis on “ikkai ichi dousa,” a saying similar to “one thing at a time”. This phrase beautifully illustrates one of the main pillars of Japanese manners: The pursuit of conscious living – visible even at the heart of a frenetic and bustling metropolis like Tokyo or Osaka. Instead of optimising activities in favour of productivity and efficiency, it’s about doing everything with utmost attention and gratitude. Hence, eating while walking is viewed as impolite because you’re multi-tasking with little consideration for your meal or the people around you. That said, there are exceptions when it comes to festivals and celebrations, but you should still be careful while doing so in these crowds so as to avoid bumping and spilling your food onto others.

Keep calm and carry your trash

Public recycling bins in Tokyo

Make sure to sort your trash accordingly before disposing them.

One thing that soon becomes apparent to many travellers in Japan is the lack of public trash cans. However, if (and when) you do find one, you might notice that they are almost always made out of several different bins grouped together, separated based on the type of trash it should carry – a reflection of Japan’s strong emphasis on recycling. With insufficient space suitable for landfill, recycling serves as the alternative option to disposal. Thus, it is important to be mindful of the specific bins for different types of waste – the burnable materials, such as paper products, or non-burnable ones, such as plastics, to name a few. In short, although disposing of your trash may require some scouting, it can be done. Just be sure that it goes into the right bin! And here’s a tip: If you’re on the go, carry a disposable bag to hold your trash until you find the bins (or risk getting your day bag scented by the leftover chocolate on your wrapper)!    

 

Japanese people are extremely polite and welcoming, and they probably don’t expect you to   know all their customs in a day. However, making a little effort can go a long way, and Japanese people are extremely appreciative when travellers make the effort to learn their customs. If you struggle to get a grip, however, just remember to be kind and respectful. 君なら出来るよ! (pronounced kimi nara dekiruyo, which means ‘you can do it’!)