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Explaining Customs and Habits That Are Unique to the Japanese

Familiar and even unconscious gestures and behaviors that are normal in one culture may appear strange to others. This article introduces some habits common to the Japanese and actions they consider to be normal.

Bowing on the Phone

"Ojigi" is a gesture common in a wide range of settings in Japan. It is the action of bowing at the waist to express respect, appreciation, or apology to the other person.
Bowing is so ingrained in the Japanese from an early age that they often bow to an unseen person on the other end of a phone.

I myself often unconsciously bow when saying a greeting or expressing appreciation on the phone, and have often seen others do so.
It may look a bit funny to outsiders, but I consider it to be rather heartwarming.

Frequently Uses the Fax Machine for Work

Fax machines are still commonly used in Japan despite the proliferation of the Internet and personal computers that make instant data transfer possible. I personally often have to fax items at work.
Why is it that fax machines are used so much in a time when most of the world is going paperless thanks to rapid advances in information technology?

Approximately one in every three households in Japan currently own a fax machine, with ownership being particularly high among the elderly. Conversely, the elderly are less likely to have access to personal computers or the Internet, so the government and other institutions cannot move everything online. Fax machines are also valued among corporations, because transmission by fax is less likely to be noticed by the recipient, there is a lower risk of non-delivery, and fewer issues occur at transmission.

One Hand up and Head Down When Crossing in Front of Someone

When crossing in front of others or trying to get off a crowded train, people in Japan tend to instinctively bend forward and wave one hand up and down in front of them—as if they are trying to cut air—while repeating "sumimasen, sumimasen" ("excuse me, excuse me").
This gesture made such an impression on an Italian friend the first time he visited Japan that he frequently copies it.
This gesture is called "tegatana wo kiru" (cutting a hand sword) and is said to have started by people opening their hands to show they are not holding weapons when indicating they want to cross in front.
The bending at the waist and bowing of the head is an expression of humbleness and seems to be a typically Japanese gesture.

The Green Traffic Light Is Called Blue

Traffic lights are red, yellow, and green based on international convention, so why is it that in Japan, the green light is called a blue light?
The first traffic light was established in Japan in 1930, and at the time, the green light was legally called a "green light". However, it was referred to as a "blue light" in the media, and that expression stuck and regulations were later re-written to refer to it as a "blue light". The widely accepted theory for why it was re-written is that there was always a custom in Japan to refer to green items as blue, such as "bright blue greenery" and "blue vegetables", so it was natural for a green light to be called a "blue light".

It appears that in Japan, blue and green were not differentiated until the 12th century, and both were referred to as "ao" (blue). How interesting that even the names of traffic signals are deeply connected to Japanese culture.

Drinking Beer and Other Alcohol on the Shinkansen

Many friends from abroad ask why the Japanese drink alcoholic beverages, such as beer, on the shinkansen (bullet train).

The kiosks in Japanese stations sell a variety of alcoholic beverages such as beer, canned shochu highballs, and sake. Many shops selling ekiben (station lunch boxes) at shinkansen stations also sell alcoholic drinks.
Alcoholic beverages are also sold on board the shinkansen trains.

I myself avoid drinking alcohol on the shinkansen, but many people enjoy alcoholic drinks with ekiben aboard the shinkansen and consider it to be one of the pleasures of traveling.
Also, when traveling on the shinkansen for business, the travel setting likely makes one feel a bit more relaxed (compared to the usual crowded commuter train), so the business traveler may reward himself with a drink for a hard day's work.
There may also be a lot of people who see others drinking and are inspired to partake themselves.

This article introduced some popular customs and habits of the Japanese that may be unconscious to them or considered normal. Be sure to keep an eye out to see if you can find some examples when traveling in Japan. You may make some new discoveries.

*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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