Culture Shock Japan | Small Surprises from Everyday Life
Updated: Jun 25
Cultural Differences in Japan (First Year Surprises in Tokyo)
Most people have heard rumors about Japan. The land of unmatched hospitality, vending machines for every occasion, rush hour people-floods, and techno-toilets so thorough and gentle it’s like a tiny spa for your hindquarters.
The facts about these Japanese phenomenons might be exaggerated. Still, most people have come to expect warm toilet seats and big crowds when coming to Japan. In other words, these things didn’t surprise me much when moving to Tokyo.
That is not to say that my year has been lacking in culture shocks. I have had my fair share of surprises while adjusting to everyday life in Japan. Some were tiny incidents, others were earth-shattering, mind-blowing, I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-butter-moments.
10 Cultural differences in Japan that surprised me the first year
1. Apple Peel is not Eaten in Japan
(nor is pear-, peach-, or grape-peel)
I eat apple peel. In fact, I think it is the best part of the apple. It’s crunchy, it’s slightly sour, and it’s (supposedly) rich in nutrients. In Japan, no one eats peel, of hardly any fruits.
Now, you might have heard that fruit peel has been proven to contain pesticide residue, and you would be right. This is not why Japanese people peel their fruit, however.
When I ask Japanese people why they peel all fruit, the most common answer is that the fruit skin hurts the teeth when chewing. As it turns out, Japanese jaws are more sensitive than my Scandinavian peel-grinder.
In fact, I just had my first dentist appointment in Japan. Aside from the incredibly thorough cleaning, it surprised me that they also checked my jaw structure. The dentist even commented on my «very nice jaw». If Japanese jaws in fact tend to more fragile, perhaps I can understand the Japanese obsession with fluffy foods.
2. Double the Carbs, Double the Fun!
Where I come from (Norway), we rarely add more than one source of carbohydrates to our meals. Usually potatoes, pasta or rice. In Japan, on the other hand, it is not unusual to find many carb sources in the same meal.
An important part of the Japanese diet is variety. As advised by the government, a healthy diet should contain at least 30 different food sources per day. This is not so different from Norwegian dietary ideas, but we usually think of carbs as carbs. In Japan, however, rice, noodles and potatoes are considered very different things.
This is why you will find fluffy sandwiches stuffed with noodles at 7/11. This is also why you might be served a potato-based stew, with rice on the side. There are of course instances of this in Norway too. For instance, we do love potato salad on everything, and our burgers usually come with both bread and fries.
In Japan, I feel that it happens more frequently, though, but it might just be that the food combinations feel a little odd to me, and therefore sticks out. A side note on this topic is that Japanese people tend to think about the carb source as the main, whereas in Scandinavia, the protein source is considered the main item of a meal.
3. Morning Sugar-Rush is a Must!
While I was growing up, I was taught that breakfast is the most important meal. It is supposed to sustain you throughout the day, and sometimes keep you going until evening. Therefore, it should consist of slow-burning carbs, lean protein-rich meats, and vitamin-rich fruits.
In Japan, many people prefer sweet baked goods for breakfast, such as danish pastry, buns filled with sweat bean paste, or donuts. The reasoning being that (1) the brain feeds on sugar, and (2) it burns quickly, so you can get ready for a real meal a few hours later.
I am sure Japanese families under the good grace of a dedicated homemaker are served more wholesome breakfast foods. As a foreigner, who takes breakfast advice from students and salarymen, my first experience with Japanese breakfast habits was quite the culture shock.
4. Health does not Trump Taste!
On the topic of healthy eating habits, I am often asked by Japanese friends about my menu choices when visiting Japanese cafes and restaurants. The fact that my choice is often based on health benefits rather than taste, usually does not compute.
After one year in Japan, I have stopped trying to explain that healthy lifestyle choices make me happier than greasy hamburgers. If you go down the explanation-road, be prepared. When telling Japanese people that you don’t choose food for taste, expect reactions more befitting a statement like «I just licked the floor at Mac Donalds».
I have come to accept that my choice is considered outlandish (which it sort of is) and found some more palatable explanations for my food choices. For instance, «I think it’s delicious», «It seemed interesting to me» or «I wanted to try something new».
5. Anorexia is cool. Overweight is a warning sign!
Before moving to Japan, I often heard people say: «People must be so healthy in Japan, since everyone are thin and live long lives». In my experience, people are no healthier here than in other countries, and thin bodies are somewhat of a Japanese obsession.
In fact, overweight is not only looked down upon, but also perceived as a sign of lacking self-control. This is why overweight people might struggle to find good jobs in Japan.
Now, you might think that discrimination against overweight people is shocking. But I believe this happens in Norway too, just not as openly as in Japan. Scandinavia also has ideals of thin bodies, but most people are far from as skinny as your average Japanese guy/gal.
The thinner you are the better in Japan. People will compliment my weight, which by the way is so low that my doctor felt the need to check if I had cancer. Also, when I mention my skinny-ankles-complex, Japanese brows will raise so high that eyeballs are in danger of dropping to the floor.
Many people in Japan are convinced that the extreme ideals about thin bodies hail from America/Europe. To some extent this might be true, but it seems to have taken an ugly turn in Japan. It definitely shocks me when people have never even heard about «anorexia», and this happens every time I bring it up.
They have even identified a lung-ailment in Japan, which commonly affects young underweight men. In Japan this ailment is called «Ikemen-byô», which roughly translates to «handsome-guy-syndrome».
6. Everyone Loves a Big Nose, Thin Hair, and Pale Complexion!
No matter how many times I hear it, I can’t get used to people complementing my big nose, my thin hair, and my pale complexion. Also, I find it very hard to swallow the Japanese expression «all problems fade if your skin is pale».
«The grass is always greener» becomes painfully accurate when I hear Japanese people complain about their tiny noses, round faces, and thick unruly hair. The very same thing that drives many Scandinavians green with envy.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to finally get some positive attention for my husky-sized snout and my ever-thinning hairlines, but I’ll never get used to the never-ending praise of my sickly pale complexion.
7. Harajuku Kids are Weirdos!
I used to think that Japan applauded expressions of individualism, at least in the private sphere, since so many seem to embrace odd interests and clothing styles. The attention to Harajuku fashion in Europe/America makes Harajuku kids seem like fashion icons.
Well, nothing could be further from the truth. Any Japanese subculture might seem massive to a Scandinavian like myself, but the fact of the matter is, that even though there are a lot of delightfully colorful Harajuku kids to see in the streets, the public opinion is that they are outcasts, weirdos, and losers.
Most people in Japan seem to applaud conformity rather than individuality. The chosen few weirdos who become stars on TV, or in fashion magazines, are merely commodities of the capitalist machine. They are used for their salability, but to me, as an outsider, they appear to be mostly laughed at, not with.
8. Messing up Waste Sorting makes you a Bad Foreigner!
Japan is known for their cleanliness, and they take their garbage disposal very seriously. In fact, many apartment complexes will not rent out to foreigners, because they have experienced bad sorting skills from prior foreign tenants.
In short, every apartment comes with a detailed garbage disposal manual. Anyone who fails to follow this in any way, will enrage the little old lady next door. If you want to be a good stranger in a strange land, get your garbage sorting straight.
The manual is detailed, yet understandable, but most places require you to dispose of your garbage between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. Where I live, Monday is glass, paper, and cans. Tuesday and Fridays are burnables, like food scraps and plastic. Thursdays alternate between plastic bottles and non-burnables. Easy peasy.
9. Traveling Bags are Contaminated! So are Outside Pants!
We all know that in Japan, the shoes come off before entering someone’s home. What you might not know, is that this tradition extends beyond shoe-removal, and is deeply rooted in Japanese notions about cleanliness.
The idea is that the step-up in the entryway is a barrier for dirt and germs. Anything that has been in contact with outside surfaces, such as shoulder bags, traveling suitcases, or your lazy ass on a park bench, is also contaminated, and shall not enter the living area.
So, what is the proper etiquette in these situations? Leave your shoulder bag in the entryway. Then, clean and sanitize any suitcase and its wheels properly before taking it inside. Finally, take off your filthy park-pants and change into house-pants.
Also, if you should happen to step on the dirt-gathering step-down in the entryway after taking off your shoes, you should ask the master off the house if you should take off your socks. On the upside, Japanese houses are so clean that they only need to change their bed sheets four times a year.
10. Japan does not Believe in Mental Problems!
Mental problems are a far too serious topic for such a loosely written blog post as this. The following statements are generalizations. Still, I choose to include them, since few things shocked me more during my first year in Japan.
In simple terms, Japan was late in accepting mental problems as an actual illness. My first encounter with this phenomenon was when I was told that psychologists are a rare breed in Japan. Currently, companies are obliged to acknowledge mental problems, but more often than not, the solution is senseless medication.
For instance, I am told that no one recommend «voluntary social hermits» – also known as «hikikomori» in Japan – to seek mental help. In fact, it is often believed to just be laziness. And should one of these «hikikomori» seek help at a mental health clinic, they will not be questioned much about their mental state before prescriptions flow.
Let’s just consider this for a moment. Did a few puzzle pieces just fall into place? If the validity of mental problems is questioned, by and large in society, doesn’t that make it harmless to push people to work harder, longer and more intense?
Many (not all) Japanese people do not consider working themselves to death, or shutting themselves away from society, to be mental problems, but individual choices. But if working yourself to the brink of suicide is not considered a mental issue, then there is no reason to stop, is there?
Things have changed a lot in Japan over the last decade when it comes to mental care. My impression as a first-year citizen in Japan are definitely colored by the opinions of my own age group. In other words, my impression is the reflection of the past decade rather than the present.
This means that I lack a good grip of the current situation, but when looking closer, I notice a lot of proactive mental care initiatives brewing these days, especially after the pandemic started. That being said, past mental care negligence appears to linger, since people tell me so repeatedly when I ask questions about the lack of psychologists in Japan.
In his book «Japan Story – In Search of a Nation», Christopher Harding proposes that social issues like «overwork-to-death» and «voluntary-social-seclusion» stem from psychological distress caused by intense modernization. Matters are of course more complex, which is why we leave it here, with Harding’s argument as final food for thought.
I am far too inexperienced with life in Japan to make an educated guess about the connection between lack of mental care and other social issues in Japan. I can merely observe and ask questions.
To me as an outsider, something appears askew in Japan, for better or worse. This is what fascinated me about the country in the first place. They might not always be pretty, but the culture shocks Japan offers are always fascinating.
For now, the best I can do is bask in the rain of huge-nose-compliments, thank the gods for my borderline anorexic appearance, enjoy my breakfast donuts, and break the ice with my number one party-trick: Eating unpeeled apples til my gums bleed.