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Why? How Come? Strange Customs and Habits of the Japanese

When traveling abroad, one is often surprised by differences in culture. We'll explain some customs and behaviors in Japan that may seem strange to outsiders.

Everyone Bows

Bowing is considered to be a quintessentially Japanese behavior. It is an action that expresses respect for the other person, and signifies a variety of sentiments such as "appreciation" and "apology". The Japanese also bow as a greeting and to ask one another a favor. The deeper the bow, the more respect you are expressing, so different forms of bowing are used in different scenarios.

Many People Wear Masks

Many people wear masks in Japan. The main reason is to protect their noses and mouths from viruses and allergens so they don't catch a cold or get allergy symptoms. Sometimes, people who have a cold wear them so they don't give the cold to others. Recently some people wear them so others don't see their faces—such as women who wear them when not wearing makeup.

Trains and Buses Come on Time

In Japan, trains and buses are expected to run on schedule unless there is an incident or disaster. Even in large cities where the timetables are by the minute, almost all trains arrive on time. When a train is delayed, there are broadcasts and displays announcing how many minutes it is delayed by. In the case of buses, there are often services that show where the buses are, either on the bus stop, over the internet, or through a mobile app.

There Are Many People Dozing on Trains

In Japan, many people doze on trains. They can do so because it is rare to be robbed even if you let yourself appear defenseless in public. It may also be because many Japanese people, who are known to be diligent and hardworking, are lacking sleep.

Water and Hot Towels Are Served at Restaurants

Most restaurants serve water and tea for free as a gesture of hospitality when you sit down. Many also serve oshibori (a small towel dampened with water or hot water and wrung out) at the same time. Many have cold oshibori in the summer and warm ones in the winter so customers can comfortably wipe their hands.

Piles of Salt Are Placed around Entrances

Piles of salt can often be seen around the entrance and sinks of restaurants and homes. They are triangular pyramids of salt on small plates that are place to ward off evil or misfortune and to wish for good luck. There is a variety of theories about the origin, such as that salt is considered to represent "cleansing" or "the renewal of life" in Japan.

People Make Sounds When Eating

It is common in Japan to make sounds when eating soups and noodles—so much so that some people think that the meal isn't tasty if you don't make a sound. However, even in Japan, it is not appropriate to make sounds when eating Western-style soups. It is also considered rude to make noises with plates or when chewing.

People Hold Their Bowls to Eat

It is standard etiquette when eating with Japanese tableware to hold the bowls. Any small bowl with side dishes and rice that is smaller than the palm of your hand should be held to eat. However, flat plates with fish and other items should be left on the table. Also, even if the bowl is bigger than the palm of your hand, it is appropriate to pick it up if it is a rice bowl or rice box.

Raw Eggs Are Eaten

There are strict regulations for eggs in Japan both in terms of use-by dates and quality control, so they are safe to eat raw. They are eaten in a variety of different ways, such as on rice or as toppings for food. Sukiyaki, which is a famous Japanese dish, is beef that has been cooked in a sweet and savory sauce and is usually eaten with raw eggs.

They Sit on the Floor Seiza Style

Seiza is a way of sitting by kneeling with the tops of the feet flat on the floor, and sitting on the heels​. It is considered to be the formal way of sitting in Japan, and many people sit this way on a regular basis. As Western-style lifestyles become more common in Japan, many people, especially the young, say they feel uncomfortable sitting seiza style, but even they sit properly seiza style at formal occasions.

We hope you enjoy these cultural quirks when staying in Japan.

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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