Pachinko parlors blast music, various TV ads flash overhead, hundreds of signs compete for your attention, people pass out various fliers on the sidewalk, trains roar nearby, various food smells waft down the street…
I wasn’t quite sure what I was experiencing yet, but I knew it fascinated me. Wandering the streets can be a sensory overload, particularly in shopping districts like Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Akihabara. The sheer amount of people passing through each day is staggering.
I was glad I was staying in the nearby suburban ward of Nakano, even though my accommodation was near the busier station area.
My first trip to Japan happened to be my first trip abroad on my own. It was a bit scary, but I couldn’t have picked a better country to explore alone. I had very little Japanese ability back then, but I was young and nice-looking; plenty of people stopped to help me if I looked anything close to “confused”.
People often ask me “Why Japan?” and it’s often followed by “do you like anime?” I may have answered yes to the latter in my youth, I’m not quite as enthralled by Japanese pop media as I used to be. My fascination nowadays is much more about the culture.
Japanese Culture: a Quick Breakdown
Most people are familiar with common “Japanese” cultural quirks, like only using chopsticks during meals or the antiquated idea that everyone lives with their grandparents.
But modern Japanese culture is much more flexible. While you may still be required to take off your shoes when entering some buildings, you usually won’t be expected to have a high level of knowledge about Japanese culture.
To make the most generalized statement possible: interactions in Japan are largely about maintaining a good public face. Their culture is built around nuanced levels of politeness and customer service. This includes avoiding confrontation when possible and giving people the benefit of the doubt.
While Americans are surely familiar with “the customer is always right”, Japanese people tend to take this a step further. It’s not uncommon for hotels to forward forgotten items to a guest’s next destination or for them to bend over backward to ensure you have a great experience.
People from countries with minimal service culture might be particularly surprised with the Japanese approach to customer care. On the flip side though, Japanese people tend to be very shocked when they visit cities like Paris. This extreme culture shock even has a name: Paris Syndrome.
Is Japan Safe?
This question isn’t easy to answer because it depends on your definition. I would say that Japan, or more specifically Tokyo, is definitely at least as safe as most of the developed world. You could even argue that Japan is safer than most other major countries because they have a distinct lack of violent crime.
In some areas of Tokyo, like Roppongi or Kabukicho, you may be robbed if you’re intoxicated. But you’re much more likely to be scammed or given the “foreigner menu” in tourist areas than you are to have your stuff directly stolen. Pickpockets are also relatively rare, even in very crowded areas like Sensoji Temple.
There’s a much bigger issue of “white collar crimes” in Japan that ties into their desire to generally avoid confrontation, but we won’t discuss that here.
Sexual Assault and Harassment
By far, women are the most likely to be victims in Japan. As a solo female traveler and a woman who has lived in Japan for nearly four years, I’ve only felt unsafe once.
A male passenger was “narrating” everything I did. He’d announce if I touched my hat, if I looked away, if I pulled out my phone. It was outright disturbing. I thought about getting off the train, but I was worried he’d follow me. All the other passengers were glaring at him, but no one ever said a word.
Eventually, a group of college guys blocked this man’s view and he got off. Much later, I found out that this man was known on the Japanese web for his behavior and that he had been blasted on a Niconico video. The police did nothing, because being creepy isn’t a crime in Japan.
There were other smaller incidents. I’ve been groped a handful of times, even when I was traveling with male companions. I’ve had a guy press up against me weirdly. These incidents were upsetting, but they were in public and so I didn’t actually feel unsafe. Just angry.
But that hasn’t stopped me from loving the country.
Culture Shock: a Warning about Expectations and Reality
There are so many different situations where this could apply. For visitors to Japan, things are generally positive as a whole. Japan does a fantastic job of exceeding expectations. But let’s bust a few myths to help lessen the impact.
Myth 1: All Japanese toilets are fancy and sophisticated.
Reality: This can absolutely be true. I know I’ve encountered amazing rest stop bathrooms along Japan’s highways, including ones that had maps of available toilets, washlets, and heated seats.
However, if you’re visiting older buildings in Japan or if you’re hiking, squat toilets are still quite common. Going to the bathroom often has a sense of urgency and it can actually be stressful if squat toilets are the only option. I recommend checking out this humorous video from popular Jvloggers Rachel and Jun to learn some techniques on how to use them.
Myth 2: Japan is very technologically advanced.
Reality: Innovation is common industry practice in Japan. I’d say that Japanese toilet seats, vending machines, and their overall desire to automate is from a focus on user experience that we don’t quite match in the West. They often use technology in places we do not.
But it’s a myth to say Japan is technologically advanced. The internet is still not used in many processes for unknown reasons. Even if you have a bank account, you often have to physically go to a branch to open an online account. Fax machines are still a prominent means of communication in Japanese companies. Cash is still the main form of payment.
Online appointment systems aren’t really a thing either, so you’ll have to call for a doctor’s visit. The immigration system is experimenting this year (in 2019) with an online renewal system, but it’s currently only for certain visa holders.
But at least your doorbell has a video camera, right?
Myth 3: Tokyo is super expensive.
Reality: I hear this one all the time and I’m not sure where it comes from. Even today, most cost of living surveys rank Tokyo toward the top.
Rent is definitely not cheap, but unlike some Western countries, Japan still regularly builds affordable apartments and starter homes. Food and eating out is especially cheap. Yes, fruit is a bit more expensive in grocery stores, but it’s easy to find local produce shops with lower prices.
Myth 4: Japan is a monoculture, so breaking cultural rules is offensive.
Reality: I’m so tired of hearing about how Japan is a “monoculture”. Sure, there are plenty of overlapping rules, but Japan is far from being homogenous. Cultural differences between Osaka and Tokyo are well-known. There’s a lot of pride in local area specialties, such as certain traditional crafts or food.
If you include the Ainu of Hokkaido and the Ryukyuan people, you have ethnic groups that were forced to assimilate into mainland Japanese culture. These groups are distinctly different and there’s been a recent push for them to gain recognition within Japan.
But there are some cultural rules shouldn’t be broken. You may definitely get reproachful stares if you cross the line, even if you don’t mean to. Great examples of this is talking loudly on a train or not removing your shoes when entering certain spaces.
But most of the time, Japan gives foreigners a free pass. This happens a little too often, personally, but it is what it is. They don’t expect you to have mastered their nuanced levels of politeness or for you to understand what they consider acceptable and what they don’t.
Myth 5: Japanese food is very healthy.
Reality: I think this probably comes from the idea that Japanese meals usually feature fruits and vegetables, so at least it’s healthier than some meals in North America. But Japan is also known for deliciously unhealthy food, like karaage and yakiniku. These are higher in fat and salt content.
Plus Japan has some insanely good junk food. Calbee’s pizza chips or the various seasonal Kitkats are some of my favorites.
So Why Visit Japan?
I keep coming back to this question myself. It’s not just that Japan has vibrant and attractive subcultures. It’s not just the beautiful scenery. There’s something else going on.
For many, I suspect it’s the intricate balance Japan has maintained between the old and the new. Even in central Tokyo, you can still find small shrines and temples. Fall often involves local omikoshi, or “shrine float”, traditions. There are still plenty of places within the country that have been largely untouched in Japan’s history.
There’s a brilliant blend of fashions, of different kinds of cuisine. The incredibly wealthy and the budget travelers alike can enjoy their own versions of Japan.
For me personally, I keep coming back for a few reasons. I’ve made a lot of great friendships in Japan. I enjoy most Japanese food, the convenience of their many services, and I like the minimalist living that having a smaller apartment encourages. I also really like fantastic public transportation and Tokyo never disappoints!
But what are your reasons for coming back? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
Amanda obtained a Japanese Studies degree in 2014. She has worked in the English teaching, tourism, and real estate industries in the Greater Tokyo Area, which has given her a wide range of expertise. She resided in the Kanto Region for most of her three and a half years in Japan, but Amanda also spent eight months living in the more rural Yamanashi Prefecture.