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10 surprising cultural habits from Japanese people you need to know

Our Japanese editors told me all about Japanese cultural habits. Check out this amazing list!

Our editors are located in 89 different countries in the world! That’s a very impressive number and I feel amazed at how culturally diverse our communities are from one another. Based on that information, can you imagine how many interesting habits our editors might have?

Well, thinking about that, I’ve talked to four amazing Japanese editors; Megumi, Kanako, Saori, and Yuko, to learn about some cultural habits they have in Japan. It’s worth mentioning that 3.6% of our editors in total, mostly from the Japanese community, are located in this beautiful country.

A crowded street in Osaka, Japan — Photo via Flick

Find a list of 10 surprising cultural habits from Japanese people below.

1. Visionaries
The whole world started wearing surgical masks after the outbreak of COVID-19. However, this is an old habit for Japanese people. They use it when they’re sick and don’t want to contaminate other people, as a sign of respect. They also use it to prevent getting a cold, especially in the winter (and to keep their faces warm). Some people can get severe hay fever during spring in Japan (February-April), so a good mask can be their best friend.

2.“Itadakimasu” is a very important word!
Japanese food is known all over the world for its delicious flavors. Japanese people take eating seriously, and one of the ways to show their gratitude for the food is by saying “Itadakimasu” before their meals. They put their hands together, say “Itadakimasu”, bow gently, and then enjoy their culinary wonders. They want to thank everything involved in the process of having that food on their tables such as animals, farmers, and chefs. Japanese people are taught this habit from a young age — what a lovely tradition!

“Itadakimasu” is a habit spread all over Japan — Photo via Flick

3. Never hugging or kissing
I must admit I find this habit very peculiar. In Japan, touching another person’s body is considered rude, even with friends or family. Hugging and kissing are mostly for couples. Our editor Kanako said that she’s never hugged any of her family members as a grown woman. She hugs her foreign friends but not the Japanese ones. This is seen as a privacy barrier, also because they prefer to show emotion by saying the right words instead. Lucky them, Japanese is a fascinating language!

4. Is your backpack ready to go?
Japan is widely known for having natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis, and for that reason, most Japanese people have a backpack in case there’s an emergency and they need to evacuate quickly. In school, there are evacuation drills conducted several times a year to educate the population from a young age. It’s not just the people who know what they’re doing — most Japanese buildings have been specifically designed to withstand serious earthquakes. Now that’s impressive!

5. A gift for another gift
At ceremonial events such as a wedding, a funeral, or the birth of a new family member, or at different occasions such as when someone is ill at a hospital, it’s customary to donate some money as a gift. However, you must return this gift as a sign of courtesy. After the event, you go and visit the person with a gift worth half or one third of the price of the present you’ve received. It’s a strong way to build a good relationship with someone in a society ruled by good manners and politeness. If I get a gift from a Japanese friend, I’ll definitely remember that!

6. Girl power on Valentine’s Day
Valentine’s Day is celebrated differently around the world and in Japan, girls and women take the initiative. Like most places, it’s celebrated on 14th February and they give chocolates to show their appreciation or love to someone else. One month later, the boys and men return the gift, in what is called “White Day”. Rumors say that a chocolate company started that tradition to boost their sales — whether it’s true or not, we know it worked!

Girls giving chocolate to boys on Valentine’s Day is a habit spread all over Japan regardless of age — Photo via Shutterstock

7. Do it yourself since childhood
I personally love this one! Did you know that there are barely any cleaners working on-site at schools in Japan? This task is reserved for the pupils — another responsibility they have is to serve their own meals. This is a way to build a sense of collective responsibility. Can you imagine if kids from all over the world were required to do that? I’m sure the world would be a better place!

8. Walking kids
Another good habit school fosters in Japanese kids is walking when going to and from school. Starting in their first primary school year, at age six, kids walk to school without their parents’ presence, some more than 30 minutes every morning. Now more people are concerned about their safety, so there are some volunteers at several points to watch or guide them on their path. This is to encourage a sense of independence in the kids.

9. You might find a train/bus ride quirky
Japanese people tend to sleep on their public transportation rides. I can definitely relate to this one because it’s quite common in Brazil as well. Do you know that day when you are tired, wishing for extra sleep? A reinvigorating sleep while you’re commuting can perform miracles! The fact Japan is considered to be a safe country definitely helps with that.

10. The sound of embarrassment
Do you know that sound we all make when using the toilet? Yes, that is considered embarrassing in Japan, especially for females. One solution Japanese people use to hide this sound is to flush while they’re using the bathroom. Obviously, this is a huge waste of water, so to make it less awkward and save the planet, most public toilets are equipped with a button with a fake flush sound or a background one, to mask your embarrassing bathroom noise. That’s very curious!

I’m sure you were also intrigued if not by all, at least by some of these habits. I know I was! I’ve always been fascinated by different cultural habits and Japan is on my bucket list to visit. One thing I’ve learned not just through researching and writing this article but also from managing our Japanese community is that it’s not just the country that’s amazing, it’s also the people. So, thank you for so much culture and knowledge!

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10 surprising cultural habits from Japanese people you need to know was originally published in Unbabel Community on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.