What kind of impression do you have of Japan? Many people have likely come across rumors about how safe the country is or how kind the Japanese people are, plus a few things they can hardly believe. You may wonder, “Is it true that train and bus drivers will apologize if they are delayed just by a couple of minutes?” or “If you lose your valuables on the street in Japan, are you really guaranteed to get them back?” In this article, we will examine some of the most common rumors about Japan to see how much truth there is to them.
1. Is Japan Really So Safe That People Can Sleep on the Train with Their Phone on Their Lap?
Trains are an essential part of Japan’s public transportation system. They run everywhere, from major cities like Tokyo and Osaka to the farthest reaches of the country. A common sight on Japan’s trains is that of a commuter fast asleep in their seat. These are usually busy people on their way to or back from work grabbing the chance, no matter how brief, to rest up a bit. It’s not uncommon to see people sleeping with their phones or wide-open bags on their laps as well as people sleeping while standing up on jam-packed trains, or even people dozing off while waiting for the train at the platform. In many other countries, this would present a lot of opportunities for thieves, which is why it has become one of the symbols of just how safe Japan is.
Japan’s exceptional public safety is certainly one of the reasons that such casual public sleeping is possible, but that’s not the whole story. There’s also the fact that Japanese trains are designed to be comfortable. In many other countries, the seats on trains are often hard and made out of plastic. In contrast, Japanese train seats are cushioned like a comfy chair that gives the sitter a warm and comforting feeling. Add excellent air conditioning and heating, and it’s easy to see why so many commuters drift off to sleep. Of course, the traditional Japanese working style of “early to work, late to return home” that somewhat continues to this day also plays a role, but dozing off so readily wouldn’t be possible without Japan’s exceptional public safety or comfortable train interiors.
2. Is It True That a Lost Wallet Will Find Its Way Back to You?
One of the legendary rumors about Japan’s safety that’s been heard around the world is the “If someone loses their wallet in Japan, it will find its way back to them” story.
According to data from a 2019 report by the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, in 2018, more than 3,839,000,000 yen (about $35 million) in lost cash was returned to police stations in the capital, the largest sum ever recorded in one year. However, the total amount of cash reported to police as lost was 8,480,000,000 yen (roughly $80 million). From this data, we can see that only 45.7% of lost valuables was turned in to the police. Furthermore, the actual amount of cash that was given back to the owners was 2,820,000,000 yen. Of the rest, roughly 500,000,000 yen was awarded to the finder if the owner couldn’t be identified, and another 560,000,000 yen became the police department’s revenue when the owner couldn’t be found and the finder had given up their claim to the cash.
In other words, it seems like it’s safe to say that this rumor has some truth to it. Even in the midst of frantic, bustling Tokyo, in the age of distracting technologies that seem to be pulling us further apart, people still think about their fellow humans.
Taking a firsthand look at the above data, it’s easy to understand just how safe Japan really is. Whether it’s a wallet, driver’s license, transit card, key, bag, clothing, etc., returning a lost item to the nearest police station or a train station’s lost-and-found window is simply considered good manners in Japan. Somewhat amusingly, even when it comes to inexpensive items such as umbrellas, a total of 343,725 such lost items were turned in in 2018, of which a mere 6,154 were even reported. This is probably because those items were thought of as replaceable and were therefore given up on.
3. Why Do Japanese People Make so Much Noise While Vigorously Slurping Down Their Noodles?
Starting with the use of chopsticks, there are many customs related to eating in Japan. Among them, the unique custom of “noodle slurping” tends to stand out.
Those new to the country might observe Japanese people vigorously slurping their noodles and think “Should I eat like that, too?” or “Does it taste better if you eat it that way?” The truth is, there’s really no need to eat noodles like this. It’s not actually even considered to be good manners, and it is in no way rude to not slurp. As to whether or not the noodles taste better if slurped, that is entirely up to the opinion of the eater.
There is a line of thinking, however, which says that vigorously slurping the noodles ensures that the soup coating the noodles doesn’t drain back into the bowl before entering the mouth, allowing you to enjoy more of the flavor and fragrance of the broth. This is supposedly why some people choose to slurp.
Looking into it a little bit more, though, it is thought that Japan’s love of simplification could also be related to this way of eating noodles. Japanese people have a tendency to do things in the simplest, most efficient way, no matter what they’re doing. Even when it comes to words, the people of Japan love to make them as short as possible, calling smartphones “sumaho” and Starbucks “sutaba,” among countless other abbreviations. It seems that when it came to the task of eating long noodles in the quickest and most efficient way, a process of trial and error led to the vacuum-like slurping method now commonly used by many Japanese people.
Although slurping is preferred by a great number of people, many Japanese women choose not to do it. If you’re in a Japanese noodle restaurant and feeling unsure about slurping your noodles, don’t worry. You should feel free to enjoy your food however you please. In any case, slurping doesn’t necessarily make the noodles taste any better.
4. Are Japanese Cities Really Clean and Litter-Free Despite the Lack of Public Trash Cans?!
If you’ve spent any amount of time in Japan, you have no doubt noticed the surprising lack of public trash cans. Yet despite this, the streets are almost completely litter-free. About the only bins you’re likely to encounter are the bottle and can-only ones next to vending machines. If you’re wondering what Japanese people do with their garbage in a world without trash cans, we have an article on that!
In public spaces in Japan, apart from the aforementioned spot next to vending machines, garbage bins can be found inside or outside of convenience stores, inside of train stations, and in parks. However, unless such a bin is close by when needed, Japanese people follow common courtesy and collect their garbage in a bag which they later throw away when they pass a bin or take home to throw away there if no bin is to be found. That’s how they manage to keep their country so clean. A big reason for this mentality lies in Japan’s education system.
In Japanese schools, excluding universities, there are actually no janitors, and the students themselves are tasked with keeping the school clean. During the 12 years of compulsory education, time for cleaning is set aside each day, usually after the noon break, and students are taught to take responsibility for keeping the space that they use clean. With “leave a space cleaner than you found it” as a guiding principle, Japanese people feel a moral sense of duty to continue keeping their public spaces and cities clean. In addition, Japanese schools teach students to act as a group with the belief that the actions of many reflect what is right. This thinking extends to garbage and plays an important role in deterring littler as people conclude “if other people are refrain from littering, then so should I.”
The removal of trash cans in public places can be traced back to safety measures put in place following the 1995 Tokyo subway terrorist attack. However, even after their removal, people have been able to keep Japan clean without public bins.
5. Japanese People Sure Do Follow Rules! The Japanese: Masters of Queueing?
Whether it’s queueing outside a popular restaurant/café or waiting to board a train or bus, a beautifully-formed, orderly line is a common sight in Japan. In any situation that involves the use of something by a large number of people, lining up behind the person in front of you is the commonly-accepted rule. This is another custom that is rooted in the Japanese culture of respecting the actions of the group, which all Japanese people learn in school. Of course, lines are far from unique to Japan, but the idea that people should always follow the rules is the Japanese way of thinking. When boarding a train, those who were waiting the longest at the front of the line always get to board first, while those at the back wait their turn. When using escalators, people always line up on one side, leaving a path open for those in a hurry. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about a popular ramen restaurant or sweets shop, waiting to buy tickets for a popular artist, or a popular ride at a theme park, Japanese people tend to constantly think about those around them. That’s why they try to create a comfortable environment by forming orderly lines and waiting their turn, all without being told to do so by anyone else.
6. Will You Really Get an Apology After Just a Few Minutes’ Delay? Japan: Where Trains and Buses Run on Schedule!
Japan’s public transportation system is said to be the most efficient and punctual in the world. In other countries, train and bus delays can be fairly common but in Japan, a delay of even two or three minutes results in an apology from the driver or station attendant and the issuing of certificates of lateness for those who need them to show their boss at work. In Japan, “5 minutes early is on-time” is an unspoken rule, and tardiness is a cultural taboo. As such, for public transit companies, the inability to provide timely service due to a delay is cause for an announcement apologizing and explaining the reason for the delay. Even if that reason is poor weather, an accident caused by someone jumping onto the track, an emergency stop to take care of a sick passenger, or anything else seemingly out of the railroad’s control, the company takes responsibility and apologizes for the delay.
Most of the announcements on Japanese public transportation are still made only in Japanese, but lines operating in areas with many foreign travelers and residents usually display announcements in English on the screens on-board, so keep an eye out for those if there’s a delay.
7. Are All Japanese People Sick?! Why Do So Many of Them Wear Masks?
“Lots of people there wear masks” is something that you often hear people say about Japan. The current pandemic aside, outside of certain parts of Asia, there are hardly any countries where mask-wearing is a common part of daily life. In most places, masks are unlikely to be seen outside of hospitals or movie scenes, but in Japan, wearing masks is part of everyday life for a large number of people.
One reason for wearing a mask is to keep from spreading the cold that you’ve caught, or conversely to protect yourself from catching a cold. In addition, allergy-sufferers use masks to help counter seasonal allergies which persist from early spring to the beginning of summer. Japanese women sometimes use masks to hide their makeup-free faces, and celebrities use masks to disguise themselves while in public. In recent years, an increase in demand for masks can even be attributed to their use as fashion accessories. Just as with fake glasses, some people use masks to make themselves look more stylish, even if they don’t have a real need for one. The fact that masks can easily be found for sale in places like convenience stores, supermarkets, and drugstores might be another reason why they have become so indispensable to Japanese people.
8. Are Japanese Workaholics? The Reality of the Japanese Workaholic Image
“Japanese people work too much” is something that you’ve most certainly heard at least once on the internet or from the media describing the problems with the Japanese workstyle. Even the Japanese word “karoshi” meaning “death by overwork” is a term that has become known around the world.
The Japanese attitude towards work has begun to change in recent years, but shadows of the harsh corporate culture of years past remain, like expecting employees to stay long into the night working overtime on top of their scheduled working hours. A specific example that illustrates this problem well is the fact that a company requiring fewer than 40 hours of overtime work per month is considered a “white company” meaning that it follows ethical practices. There are still plenty of people who sometimes work until 12 am, barely catch the last train home, and then are expected to return to work by 7 am the following morning. Some even choose to sleep at the office. In the worst-case scenarios, people working in these conditions sometimes succumb to death from overwork or throw themselves in front of a train. According to data from the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, Monday—the day the work week begins—has the highest suicide rate of all the days of the week, with data from a recent year showing an average of 80.7 men and 27.3 women taking their lives every Monday, a figure that chills the bones when you think about it. Additionally, spring, the season where the new work year begins for Japanese companies, shows a staggeringly higher rate of suicide when compared to other seasons. The data paints a sad picture of just how unbearable many people think the Japanese work environment really is.
Recently, many workplaces have been undertaking “workstyle improvements” to make the work environment better, but there are still many companies whose bad practices continue.
9. They’re So Polite! Do Japanese People Really Bow in Every Situation?!
In Japan, where manners are everything, one of the most-used social gestures is the bow, or “ojigi.” Bowing in Japanese culture is unrelated to religion, and is merely an expression of one’s respect for another person. Other than a greeting, bowing is also used when thanking someone.
Bowing is used in many different situations, but did you know that the deepness of the bow (the angle at which the head is bent) changes based on the circumstances? When greeting someone you know in a casual setting, a light, 15-degree bow, or “eshaku” is the norm. However, when greeting a superior or when apologizing or expressing deep gratitude, a 30-degree “keirei” bow is appropriate. An even deeper 45-degree “saikeirei” bow is used to display one’s deepest respect for someone. As you can see, even something simple like a bow can have various meanings depending on the form, and Japanese people need to be able to skillfully put each bow to use.
Learning the proper time to use each bow is something that everyone who moves to Japan will have to learn at some point, but to start, the casual “eshaku” is the most commonly-used bow that should be remembered. This is the bow that Japanese people use on a daily basis, like when saying thanks to the cashier after finishing checkout, or showing your gratitude to someone who picked up something that fell out of your pocket on the street. Especially while shopping, it is very common to express gratitude with a light bow instead of using your words.
10. Is Japanese Service Always So Meticulous? The Truth About Japan’s Incredible “Omotenashi” Culture
There’s a Japanese saying that goes “the customer is god.” This phrase can be attributed to a famous enka (Japanese folk ballad) singer who truly captivated his generation. These words and way of thinking were popularized across Japan thanks to the singer’s talent and charismatic personality. As they themselves said: “for a performer, pleasing the audience is absolutely a must, so I think of them as gods as I sing.”
“The customers who use a service are sacred and noble, and when offering the goods and services to the customer, the business should do everything they can to make their experience as pleasant as possible.” This is a way of thinking that is deeply rooted in retail, food service, and other industries.
There is also another possible reason why this idea of hospitality became so popular in Japan. You see, the Japanese people put a lot of stock in first impressions. At most Japanese stores, strict rules are set regarding the uniforms, hairstyles, and makeup that the employees wear in order to leave a good first impression. These kinds of regulations are undoubtedly common throughout the world at airlines, hotels, and other settings, but in Japan, extra emphasis is put on various details such as a clean appearance or a gentle and polite way of speaking to make the customer think “Wow, the service at this business is incredible.”
Restaurants in particular adhere to the detailed and meticulous “omotenashi” philosophy. As soon as a customer enters an establishment, they are greeted with a loud “irasshaimase” (welcome) and a smile. Upon taking their seat, they see that a basket is available at their feet for storing their bags so they won’t get dirty on the ground. Before the food arrives, a moist hand towel is presented so that people can freshen up before a meal, followed by a glass of ice water.
People often say things like “Japanese people are so nice,” but what they are actually talking about is this omotenashi service.
Newcomers to Japan may find many of the things listed in this article surprising and unique, but for Japanese people, they are perfectly normal parts of everyday life. Some people will find it difficult to adjust to the culture shock at first, but once you get used to it, you just might find that you enjoy the special things that Japanese culture has to offer!
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.