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  • Writer's pictureJosh

One Year in Japan II: Culture

One year ago, I arrived to live in Japan, making today my 1-year Japan-iversary! 🎉

Yesterday I offered a few observations about Japanese language and food. Today I'd like to discuss a bit about the culture, as I have observed it. Note of course that this is one person's point of view, and I'm happy to hear about all the ways I've been short-sighted or wrong about how I've made sense of things. And know that even if I seem critical or negative at times, I still view Japan as a pretty magical place that I feel very fortunate to be able to experience first-hand in this way.

Without further ado...

Japanese (culture)

There's a kind of stereotype of Japanese people as being extremely polite and gracious, and I'm here to say... that it's totally justified and matches my daily experience almost without exception. In customer service, this appears as a kind of over-the-top, "tell us what you need and we will do everything in our power to make it happen" kind of thing. I get nervous still to make phone calls, because very often there is no English speaker on the other end, but when we are able to communicate, it is routinely a purely pleasant and positive experience. (Contrast this with Israel, where I was routinely hung up on, yelled at, or otherwise abused over the phone by companies who supposedly wanted my money!)

An example that seems emblematic of this: my wife and I were on our way to Costco one morning, and we happened to be passing through the mall just as the shops were opening. We were the only guests in the building, it seemed. As we walked by shop after shop, one by one, each and every shopkeeper was there at the door to greet us with an "Irasshaimase!" ("Welcome!") and a deep bow. We felt like royalty, but had absolutely no idea what to say or do in response, so we kept walking.

Bowing is everywhere, and I've definitely started to pick this up unintentionally. It feels a bit like part of the language, and as such the little bit I know gets mixed in with the little bit of other languages I've picked up over the years. On a recent trip to Italy, I found myself leaving the cafe by shouting "Grazie!" and bowing to the barista. They reacted (rightly) quite confusedly.

This also feels like a good place to note that Japan is just about the safest place in the world. People hardly even lock their bikes because they almost never get stolen (I have a small key lock attached to the wheel, which in any other place I've lived would be an invitation for thieves). Street crime (mugging, etc.) is very rare, even in the dense metropolis of downtown Tokyo, and Japan boasts one of the lowest violent crime rates of any country. White-collar crime is more common, but still quite rare.

If you left your wallet or phone on a bus in your city after getting off, and you realized (say) two hours later, what is the chance you would get it back? Every other place I've lived, I would kiss it goodbye. In Japan, however, getting your things back is the norm, not merely because people generally don't steal, but also because people really do go out of their way to deliver the items to the bus station, or contact the person to return them. I have at least two friends who have made this mistake, and both got their phones back.

How does this happen? Turns out, in Japan, it's just what you do; it's the culture. I've asked for directions, and had someone walk with me two blocks out of their way to point to the door. I went to the hospital for a health check, and had a personal escort walk me through the building and communicate in Japanese on my behalf, just to ensure I didn't encounter any problems. (Fittingly, his name was "Hiro", and that day, he was mine!) Great way to run a country, if you can make it happen! But it's not top-down; there's no law telling you that you must help out or face penalty. It's just what you do.

I only wish it were possible to export a bit of this to other places.

I also read recently that Japan has nearly no homeless people (< 4000 per a recent study). I have no idea how they accomplish this, aside from just saying Japan is a kind of magical place where the usual rules I'm used to don't seem to apply.


There's another stereotype about Japanese culture, which is that the Japanese are extremely efficient. I always hear about Japanese efficiency pointed to as an explanation for the economic or cultural strength of Japan in comparison with larger countries. I think this is partly true, but in very specific ways. On the other hand, there's a huge amount of redundancy and waste built-into the system too. I think exploring this will help us understand both Japanese culture and the idea of efficiency better, and this is the main lesson I'd like to impart today.

Firstly, there are some things that are legitimately efficient here. Japanese roads are more narrow (good use of space), the cars are more rectangular and therefore feel bigger on the inside (also good use of space), and I've seen many stacked parking lots (excellent use of space!). Innovations like capsule hotels really optimize a small area for very many visitors sleeping at once. Mostly, there are space-saving innovations, but one good time-saver is that people here are excellent at standing in line and waiting for their turn, which keeps everyone moving at a steady pace without interruptions.

Secondly, Japan is apparently very efficient in terms of energy use, having made big strides in many forms of renewable and sustainable energy. Recycling in Japan is also very important, with almost no garbage going to landfills; instead everything gets sorted, categorized, and recycled in its own way. It's a very complicated system, but the end result is a very low-waste economy (in a sense).

Everything has a place!

Thirdly, indeed, there are a number of really neat, time-saving or problem-solving innovations I've observed in Japan. First, some bathroom-related ones:

Left: a baby-holder inside the stall of a public restroom.

Center: umbrella holder next to a urinal.

Right: the famous "Washlet", the Japanese toilet with heated seat, built-in bidet, and cleaning function. Some have blow-drying, and many (including public restrooms) have music that plays while you are doing your business.

Two ideas I thought I invented when I was a teenager are apparently are already implemented in Japan (but I almost never see them anywhere else): a washing machine with built-in dryer, and a two-handle shower nozzle that separately controls pressure and temperature! So smart!

Rooms are often divided not by big solid doors, but sliding panels that keep the space very open but provide privacy when needed.

When it rains, very often malls, shrines, and other public places put out umbrella bags, so that you don't drip water all over the place.

And again, in case you don't know how to eat a burger, they serve them with a little paper pocket to make sure it doesn't drip on your hands.

And on and on. Lots of conveniences! (Much ink has already been spilled about how great convenience stores are in Japan, of course!) These things actually do make my life better, in many cases!

But my complaint is that the systems within Japan are often very inefficient. In fact, if you think about it, many of the examples above are not optimizing for efficiency, and are actually extremely wasteful!

Efficiency is, in essence, output divided by input. Can you do a lot with a little? On the other hand, giving every customer a one-time-use umbrella bag or hamburger holder or gum that comes with little post-its to throw away the chewed gum is very wasteful. Efficiency would be dealing with a little water on the floor, or a little ketchup drip on your hands. Building all these conveniences into bathrooms is, actually, pretty inefficient too; most people don't need them and therefore don't use them. Those are resources that could have been used to produce something else. (Maybe only one stall could have a baby holder, for example.)

Furthermore, there's a sense in which Japanese bureaucracy (e.g. at banks or government offices) "just works": people know how to do their job, and they are as effective as I can reasonably expect from anyone. But the systems they work in are often super inefficient. Papers have to be filed in a certain order, and if they are not, you have to start over from the beginning. Documents have to be checked, double-checked, triple-checked by a manager, then quadruple checked again to make sure the double-check really happened. Literally, when you enter Japan, you see not one but two immigration officers; they do the same checks a second time, to make sure the first one didn't make a mistake. It's redundant, the opposite of efficient.

You might recall that I complained about how, in Israel, you might go to the bank for a simple task three times, talk to three different people, and each will give you three totally different stories about what the correct procedures are. Well in Japan, they will all be familiar with the official requirements, with no ambiguity... but you'll need to submit a dozen forms in triplicate, each with very precise instructions. Things work, but it's a waste of everyone's time!

I could go on and on with additional examples, just from my own daily experience:

  • Outside of every parking garage, at every entrance or exit, is someone directing traffic, to ensure the already-extremely-conscientious drivers don't hit one of the already-extremely-conscientious pedestrians crossing. It's very kind, but it's a waste!

  • A friend of mine had to submit 10-15 pages of documents for a fellowship application, which is actually pretty normal. But she had to submit these 10-15 pages in paper, copied 15 times each for each of the 15 committee members.

  • I submitted a required document to my bank, and (as is the custom in Japan) stamped it with my little personalized Hanko stamp. But, I made a tiny little smudge on one of the edges of the stamp before submitting, which apparently made the document unacceptable. Their solution was to send me a new form, with 4 or 5 spots for me to stamp, in hopes that one of them would be acceptable.

  • When we arrive at the airport, there are people guiding the passengers to where they need to go for COVID testing, etc., but some of the guides are literally showing us where to go down a straight hallway with no turns. I appreciate the help, but come on!

  • Every university I've ever been to has been pretty immaculately kept, but U Tokyo is in another league. A few times in the past year, I encountered a team--at least 6 or 7 people in full maintenance garb--crouched over the bricks around campus, pulling out the tiny green grass sprouts that sometimes appear there. Would anybody even notice if they didn't do a good job? (Well, in Japan someone actually might...)

(This is before they got to this section. Squint, there are sprouts there!)


If this isn't efficiency, then what is driving all this behavior that (to me, an outsider) seems so unusual?

Consider: I and my wife were planning to move to a new apartment, just as two friends of ours were preparing to leave Japan. We thought, what beautiful timing! Our friends offered to let us buy their furniture from them en masse, and move right into their apartment; then they wouldn't have to worry about moving out, we wouldn't have to worry about buying anything new, the layout was already set, we both save time and money! Perfect!

Best of all, we were sure the landlord would approve. I mean, this was so efficient! I had the same job as my friend who was leaving, so surely they wouldn't object on that account. The landlord wouldn't have to clean the place to prepare for us to move in, because we were prepared to assume any liability for damages our friends had left behind. Everybody wins, right?

Wrong. The landlord wouldn't even consider our plan, because "that's not what we do here." Apparently, the landlord must hire a cleaning crew and inspect the place before the new tenant moves in (not by law, by custom). My friend tried to argue with him, to explain how good an idea this was for everyone, but to no avail. In frustration, my friend asked, "Ok, but what would you do if we just disappeared and left our furniture behind in the apartment? Would you let our friends take the place as-is then?" The landlord replied, "But you can't do that." "Yes, we won't do it, but what would you do if we did?" "You can't do that." (We ended up buying our friends furniture, having it stored for a month, and moving it into a different apartment that we like very much.)

I posit that the central cultural attitude, in this example and throughout the others, is not efficiency, but an attitude of thinking ahead, taken to the extreme. Every possible outcome has to be thought through, and every potential problem has to be planned for. The landlord couldn't fathom my friend's question because it wasn't part of the system that had already been thought through. Once the system is in place, you follow the rules to a T, and you know what to do when any problem arises.

Someone might slip if we allow any water on the floor of the mall! So we get umbrella bags.

Someone might, maybe, be in a place with no trash cans and no scrap paper on which to throw their gum! So we include little throw-away post-its.

Someone might, maybe, in some unusual case have a Hanko stamp that is almost identical to someone else's but with what looks like a smudge on one side! So we must require a perfect stamp every time.

And someone might, maybe, in some unusual case, or a nightmare scenario, accidentally stop on the hallway, close their eyes, spin around very fast, get disoriented, and forget which way they were supposed to go to get to Baggage Claim! So we need guides to help out every 100 meters.

If it sounds like I'm making fun... ok, I kind of am. The paperwork requirements, the level of attention to detail, the redundancy upon redundancy of check and double-check, some of it borders on insanity, at least to my foreign eyes. I'm open to the possibility that I'm wrong and there's a deep wisdom in this way of running things. But efficiency, it is not.

As a friend of mine (who has lived in Japan for 10+ years) noted to me once: In Japan, sometimes they make the requirements difficult on purpose, not because it makes things better, but because the honor is not in the outcome, it is in the effort you make to achieve it. So the more effort, the more honor.

Maybe this is part of the special sauce that makes Japan so magical; maybe this is what it takes to arrive at a country that works so well as a whole. Maybe if you let this kind of thing slip, even a little, you fall all the way from the Japanese way of finding honor in your job (whatever it is) to the American way of finding ways of shortcutting and half-assing any job you happen to be doing. I don't know, but I'm very much enjoying finding out.

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