The big list of my Japanese faux pas

Giving the impression I thought the UK was safer than Japan
I think I mentioned no earthquakes, tsunami or bears, and therefore squashed the great national myth about Safe Japan

Trying to refuse two tons of vegetables the future in-laws had brought back from the country
This was because we were going away for 10 days and they’d just go off. But gifts are not given and accepted for practical reasons, even a daikon is given to cement a bond

Thinking it was okay to refuse to do a “jikoshoukai” (a “self introduction” monologue)
This happened the first time I met my fiancée’s friends. I thought it would be okay to modestly decline, because after all this is Japan and people will understand you feeling shy and not wanting to draw attention to yourself. Apparently not! But then I guess resisting peer pressure doesn’t make you popular in any country…

Using a thumbs down gesture
This was meant to illustrate the meaning of “bad”. In Japanese it means “go to hell”, with making a cross with your open hands being the closest thing to bad.

Asking about things that reveal people’s social class
In Japan this means almost anything- the area where you live, people’s education, where you shop, your family’s jobs, if you are from Tokyo or only recently moved there,… All fine in a one to one class, but all giving too much information to other Japanese.

Rearranging the tables in my first in-company class.
Not sure why the negative reaction- maybe it’s a bit like making yourself too much at home or it makes the person in charge look bad for not thinking of doing it or helping you. I still do it every time though, because the set up of the classroom makes a huge difference to the dynamics of the classroom, something very important when differences in status is doing it’s best to undo your best lesson plan

Drinking mineral water straight from the bottle in my kids’ class.
This caused a mini riot and shouted comments of “He’s drinking! He’s drinking!”, to which the Japanese teacher, to his credit, replied with “Ningen dakara” (“Because he’s a human”). Although that class might have got the point, I don’t think I’ll be trying that one anywhere else.

Trying to move smoothly from the chat or warmer into the body of the lesson
The Japanese are big into clear transitions, such as taking off your shoes and putting on slippers when you get to the front door and then taking off your slippers when you have walked three steps and reached the tatami room. This is also true in business meetings, where the chit chat goes on for a while but the transition to the main business of the day is very clear. I cannot adapt to this, if only because moving smoothly seems one of the most creative things you can do in class…

Finishing lessons with a flourish
Again, business meetings finish with chit chat and students who might seem like they are trying to get 5 minutes of free conversation at the end might just be showing this cultural difference.

Disciplining kids for saying bad words
I realized there was not much swearing in Japanese, but I didn’t realize that it actually works both ways, in that the seemingly strong things like “Chikushou” (something between “damn” and “fuck” when you realize something has gone wrong etc) and “Bakayarou” (literal meaning “stupid guy”, but often closer to “son of a bitch”) are ignored by kindergarten and primary school teachers when the kids say them. Whether that is because they aren’t as strong as I thought or whether it’s yet another example of Japanese teachers expecting the kids to eventually learn what is appropriate due to social pressure more than being told what to do I have yet to work out.

Saying “That’s okay, I enjoyed it”
You are not supposed to enjoy work, you are supposed to do it to fulfill your duty.

Giving excuses

In a complete reverse of what I’m used to, giving precise reasons why something went wrong or you can’t make an appointment are seen as trying to let yourself off the hook and not apologise properly, so it is much better just to say “Tsugou warui” (that is inconvenient).
And no offense given but
The wrong gesture for “I”
I had a whole class shouting “T-shirt” instead of “teacher” by pointing at my chest. In Japan, the gesture for “me” is pointing at your nose

And looking at things from the other direction..
I was surprised to find no one embarrassed at all by:
Describing the plan of their house and saying “This is my mother’s room. Next to that is my room. And this is my father’s room.”



  1. azumarisan said,

    May 14, 2008 at 4:07 am

    Wow, interesting. It just goes to show how many wrong things a foreigner could possibly do. Before i went to Japan to meet my in-laws i rigorously studied every possible thing i could not do in Japan so that i wouldn’t make any faux pas. I think the only thing that happened was that i hit my husband on the head because i had a sore foot and he was touching it and when i told him to stop he wouldn’t so i went “bop” very lightly, and his parents got such a shock they all went to bed in hysterics and his father wouldn’t talk to me for days because i had just committed “domestic violence”. HAH. I just can’t help but wondering if their son “bopped” me, would they feel the same?

  2. azumarisan said,

    May 14, 2008 at 4:07 am

    Oh yeah…about the drinking water in class, is that not allowed? Why were the students so shocked?

    • thetriscuit said,

      February 7, 2011 at 5:49 am

      i remember that in my japanese classes in university i was never allowed to drink water or coffee or tea. once when i had a really terrible sore throat i asked for special permission, but in general such behavior was strongly discouraged by my japanese professors!

  3. alexcase said,

    May 14, 2008 at 1:23 pm

    That one is answered here:

  4. jonholmes said,

    July 8, 2009 at 5:12 am

    i think a lot of teaching in Japan goes so much against their cultural grain it is very difficult. Like the latest HR buzzwords,
    “Presentations” (Japanese (In Tokyo) dont, its just a company introduction and isnt supposed to have a clear main point, they re just giving out general information)
    “Meetings and decision making” (err, no. The decision has already been made).
    “Negotiations (no, they don’t negotiate. They ve already decided what they want, and just push and push until you give in.Or don’t, but they ll keep asking. I think this is why there are so many stalkers and obsessive behaviour going on in the big city, but thats just a theory. Also trying to sell something in Japan is hard, because like I said, they ve made their plan and must stick to it, even if your inventive proposal makes perfect sense and is just what they need-they don’t).

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