Life in Japan

Bathrooms in Japan
Convenience Stores in Japan
Education in Japan
Honne and Tateamae in Japan
Internet & Wi-fi in Japan
Nonverbal Communication in Japan
Omiyage in Japan
Religion and Visiting Shrines & Temples in Japan
Uchi-Soto and Group Culture in Japan

Bathrooms in Japan

Japanese Bathrooms

7 Things You Need to Know Before Using a Toilet in Japan

HOW TO USE TOILETS in JAPAN. -日本のトイレの使い方-

Why Japan’s Public Bathrooms Put America to Shame

Convenience Stores in Japan

Convenience stores are ubiquitous in Japan and can be found on every street corner – sometimes one one each of the four corners of a single intersection.  Unlike in the U.S., they are also very convenient as you can buy a quick, an inexpensive meal or snack, make photocopies or scans at the copier, purchase tickets for sporting events, concerts, and other events, access international ATMs at 7-11 konbinis, send or receive items using the baggage delivery service, pay bills, and much more! Though you may wonder why there are so many konbinis everywhere –  it’s certainly handy to know that there is a 7-11 open somewhere near you at any time day or night though – especially when you are low on cash and need to find an international ATM! You’ll probably end up frequenting your local konbinis regularly and their convenience is something you will likely miss after returning to the U.S.

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Education in Japan

Buckyball Playground in Tokyo ~ Sasha Yamada
Buckyball Playground in Tokyo ~ Sasha Yamada

The basic school system in Japan is composed of elementary school (lasting six years), middle school (three years), high school (three years), and university (four years). Education is compulsory only for the nine years of elementary and middle school, but 98% of students go on to high school. Students usually have to take exams in order to enter high schools and universities. Recently some middle and high schools have joined together to form single, six-year schools.

Regarding global and English education, Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) states that, “It is necessary to develop people who can act independently with a global point of view in a society that is becoming more international. MEXT is working comprehensively on such measures as

  1. enhancing education to deepen international understanding and teach foreign languages,
  2. promoting international exchange,
  3. enhancing education of Japanese children overseas, and
  4. enhancing education for returning Japanese children from overseas and foreign children in Japan.

For more information see:

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Honne and Tateamae in Japan

IndirectnessHonne is your real feelings and Tatemae is the façade or the face we show in public. Japanese people face a lot of criticism for the use of Honne and Tatemae. Some people view it as being two-faced or hypocritical but in Japan it is something that is used daily and is not viewed in a negative way. Actually it is considered proper social etiquette to be able to use Honne and Tatemae to keep the harmony of the situation.

The truth is every culture has some aspect of Honne and Tatemae. We don’t freely express all our personal thoughts and feelings to our boss or even close friends. We are careful as to the amount of information we share so as to not offend or hurt the people around us. So the concept of Honne and Tatemae isn’t just restricted to the Japanese culture, but what makes this concept one of the most essential aspect of Japanese culture is the extent to which Japanese people go to maintain the façade (Tatemae).

This is a bit difficult social concept for Americans, particularly young students used to be very informal and direct, to see and always grasp but you will likely encounter moments in Japan where, in retrospect, you realize you were experiencing the difference between honne and tatemae communication.   Learning a little bit more about these concepts can help give you insights in those moments when you aren’t quite sure what the true meaning is behind what is being said; or not said as the case may be.

The Honesty and Facade of Honne and Tatemae

Honne vs. Tatemae

A few years back, I was working at a school and we were trying to arrange a farewell party for one of our fellow teachers. One teacher found a great Indian restaurant that wasn’t too far away from the school. It seemed like a great place.

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Nonverbal Communication in Japan

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Japanese Body Language: 7 Key Gestures to Learn

Internet & Wi-fi in Japan

During Orientation in Tokyo: While staying at the Sanuki Club hotel during the three-week orientation there is no internet in your hotel rooms.  You can access the free wi-fi in the hotel lobby and on the 3rd floor.  If the conference room on the third floor is not being used, you may be able to access wi-fi there in the evenings. There is a Starbucks just a 5 minute walk from the hotel where you can also access wi-fi, but you must sign-up for Starbucks Japan wi-fi service in advance (see below).

At Research Internship:  During your research internship you should be given access to the laboratory/building wi-fi network.  You may or may not have access to the campus wi-fi as this varies by university.  Most students do have internet access at their housing but it may only be via ethernet cord, not wi-fi.  Occasionally some house does not have internet provided and in those cases you would need to make plans to use internet at your host lab and/or visit a nearby Starbucks (see below).

Public Wi-fi Access: Unlike in the U.S., free wi-fi is not ubiquitous in Japan.  Most wi-fi networks, even in public places, are password protected and may not be accessible by visitors/tourists.  They are often linked to specific cellular phone plans for citizens or permanent residents that are available through major Japanese cell phone providers. However, the situation in Japan is improving and there are now a number of wi-fi networks geared towards tourists or short-term visitors that you can register for in advance and then use while you are traveling in Japan via your smart phone.  However you must sign up for these in advance and sometimes they have time limits on access.

  • Japan Starbucks Free Wi-fi: Starbucks are everyone where in Japan but you cannot just walk into a Starbucks in Japan and access free wi-fi.  You must sign up for a free wi-fi account online first and then login when you enter the Starbucks.
  • Wi-fi Hotpsot Guide in Japan:  This page lists a wide array of free wi-fi programs geared to tourists and short-term visitors in Japan.  Some of these only work in certain regions or may have time limits on how long you can use them.  For most you will need to set up an account in advance and then login when you are in a wi-fit hotspot area.

Using your U.S. Smartphone for Data/Wi-fi in Japan:  Most students will bring a U.S. smartphone with them to Japan and it can be very handy for using to access the various wi-fi accounts you’ve signed up for (see above). However, it is very, very important that you be sure you have turned the data/roaming off on your U.S. phone and are only use this when connected to wi-fi.  Otherwise, you could get a very surprising and expensive bill from your U.S. cell phone providers as international roaming/data rates can be very, very expensive.

The one exception to this is students who have a T-mobile Simple Choice plan with their U.S. cell phone.  T-mobile gives free data and free texting in many countries worldwide, including Japan.  You will still be charged a higher rate though for calls made or received internationally with your U.S. phone.  But, if you have T-mobile you are very lucky as you can easily access data or send a text from your U.S. phone without needing to be connected to wi-fi for no extra charge.

The Importance of Gifts in Japan (Omiyage)

Gift-giving is truly an art form in Japan and you will quickly learn how important gift-giving culture is.  A small gift of appreciation is typically given when you first enter or join a group and if you take a weekend trip or vacation you are expected to bring back a gift, usually a box of treats, from the city/region you visited to share with your group members.  This means that U.S. students traveling to Japan must think carefully about what gifts to bring with them from the U.S.

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Omiyage in Japan

Omiyage (お土産) play a key role in relationships in Japan. Omiyage are not souvenirs, they are gifts you buy for others when you are away from your group or that you bring from you home country when you are entering/joining a group to thank them for hosting you. In Japan, purchasing omiyage when you, for example, take a weekend trip is very easy as you can purchase a nicely packaged box of treats specific to the region from any train station or kiosk. In a sense, by bringing back a gift from the region/city you visited while you were away you are sharing a part of your trip with your group members and, in a sense, thanking them for any inconvenience that your not being there might have caused for the group. Omiyage does not have to be expensive, it is more about the thoughtfulness and aspect of sharing some part of your experience with others.

However, when you first come to Japan it may be a bit more difficult to know what to bring for gifts for your research host lab as in the U.S. we don’t have nicely packaged and individually wrapped treats specific to each region or city that you can quickly purchase at the last moment. Here are some tips:

  • Candy or food treats are a good group gift as they can be left out on a table for group members to try at their leisure. If the candy or treats are specific to your home-state/home-town/region even better. However, American candy and treats are typically much sweeter than Japanese offerings. For this reason, small, individually wrapped packages are a better option than a large bag or box that may go stale/old. Past students have also said dark chocolate is sometimes a better option too as it is typically less sweet than American milk chocolate.
  • Plan to bring a separate small gift for your professor and perhaps for your graduate student mentor/s too. A gift from your campus bookstore might be a good option.
  • Don’t forget about your lab secretary/ies as well. They are the ones who have helped with processing any paperwork necessary for you to come to the host lab and may have also helped to make your research internship housing arrangements. A small, individual gift specific to your home-town/region and/or home university is a good option.
  • When you leave the lab, plan to give a hand-written thank-you note to your professor, mentor/s, secretary/ies and others in your lab or host city who have been especially helpful to you. It’s also nice to include a photo of you with the lab group or the individual you are thanking. You can easily print photos out from a USB drive at the copiers found at all konbinis (convenience stores) in Japan.
  • Bring some postcards or other small souvenir type items (keychains, etc.) of your home university or home-state/town as these are easy to pack and can be used as gifts as needed throughout the summer as well as there will likely be other people you want to thank for helping you along the way.
  • Your alumni mentor will be a great person to ask about suggested gifts including what they brought, what they wish they would have brought, and the types of things your research host professor and lab group might most enjoy from the U.S. If you aren’t sure how many people are in your lab group, look for a group photo on their website and/or ask the graduate student mentor you were assigned to (if you already have their contact information). If your alumni mentor was at the same lab last summer they may also have good ideas.
  • Also, don’t forget about thanking the on-site director and/or foundation staff. You might want to work with your fellow students to take a group photo that you have printed and framed (check out the inexpensive frames at the 100 Yen store). The back of the photo can be signed and/or everyone can write in a card and this can be presented at the end of the summer before leaving Japan.

Remember that the gift-giving culture in Japan is one that is meant to recognize the importance of your group membership, share a part of who you are or your experience with the group, and also acknowledge the person/group for the important role they play in your life (and that you play in the group as well). It is the thought/meaning of the gift that matters far more than what the gift actually is or how much it costs.

A Lesson in Japanese Culture: It’s Not a Souvenir, It’s an Omiyage!

Giving Gifts in Japan

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Religion and Visiting Shrines and Temples in Japan

Shinto and Buddhism are Japan’s two major religions. Shinto is as old as the Japanese culture, while Buddhism was imported from the mainland in the 6th century. Since then, the two religions have been co-existing relatively harmoniously and have even complemented each other to a certain degree. Most Japanese consider themselves Buddhist, Shintoist or both. Religion does not play a big role in the everyday life of most Japanese people today. The average person typically follows the religious rituals at ceremonies like birth, weddings and funerals, may visit a shrine or temple on New Year and participates at local festivals (matsuri), most of which have a religious background.

There are two easy ways to tell Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples apart. Firstly, shrines have a simple gate, called a torii, that separates the human world and sacred ground, while the gates of a temple, called a sanmon, look more like a large house rather than a gate. Secondly, temples almost always have Buddhist images and statues, while shrines do not. Thus, to sum up the differences in a single sentence, gods reside in shrines, while Buddhas reside in temples.

Religion in Japan

Japan: The Most Religious Atheist Country

Etiquette at Shrines and Temples – Japan Travel – Tourism Guide, Japan Map and Trip Planner

Visiting a temple or shrine in Japan

Shrines and temples

Shrines and temples for budget travellers in Japan – Super Cheap Japan

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Uchi-Soto and Group Culture in Japan

The concept of Uchi Soto is one of the most unique aspects of Japanese culture. This concept is the key to understanding Japanese society and it explains why Japanese people behave the way they do and how they view foreigners in Japan.

So what is Uchi Soto? Uchi (内) literally means home, while Soto (外) refers to outside. The core concept revolves around the idea of dividing people into two groups, a in-group and an out-group.Your family and close friends are considered uchi (in-group), as well as your co-workers and superiors in your research host lab.

Most tourists in Japan will always remain Soto (外) or in the out-group but Nakatani RIES Fellows in Japan have a unique opportunity to truly join and become a member of their research host lab.  You will be new to the lab, and only there for a short time, so just like any close group you may remain a little bit towards the outside edge of the in-group but many alumni have shared that they really felt a true part of their research host lab group by the end of the summer.

Uchi Soto and Japanese Group Culture

Uchi-Soto – 内-外

At Home in Japan: Uchi-Soto

Clips #1 and 2 portray a virtually identical act-borrowing a book. Although in English the translations are similar, the communications shown in these clips are markedly different. Check out the clues listed below, and compare the communication in each of the clips. Body language: How do people enter the room in each of the clips above?

Japanese business culture – Being included

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