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Japan's culture and lifestyle

Are you an expat hoping to fully immerse yourself in the unique culture of Japan? Read on to learn more about this incredible country and its people.

Expat bloggers, travellers and destination guides all reference the culture shock most foreigners experience when visiting or moving to Japan. The best way to describe it is that everything is the same… only completely different. There are people and restaurants and buses and money and shops and all the things other countries have, only they all work in a slightly different way. It doesn’t feel alien until you get to granular level, when even the simplest or most straightforward things can seem bizarre, surreal or counterintuitive.


Here are some of the key differences and challenges to those moving to Japan:

Bowing is an important part of Japanese culture, done when meeting, thanking, taking leave, asking for something or just being polite. The Japanese don’t shake hands. The deeper the bow, the greater the respect being shown. See our business etiquette section for a guide to bowing.

It can be very challenging to learn Japanese beyond the conversational basics. As is the case with other areas of Japanese society, there are strict codes governing language and its use, and even native Japanese speakers find it complex and difficult to master. And that’s before you’ve mastered writing pictograms — Japanese ‘letters’. While the Japanese are forgiving of language mistakes made by foreigners, it is worth erring on the side of politeness, humility and caution, especially in a business context.

The subtlety, nuance and rigour of the rules governing Japanese non-verbal communication make getting it right so important. Facial expressions, tone of voice and posture can all communicate emotions, attitudes and opinions. For example, frowning while someone is speaking in many countries is seen as concentration; in Japan it can be interpreted as a sign of disagreement. Expats may therefore find that the Japanese maintain an impassive expression when speaking. Silence is also common in conversations as it demonstrates trustworthiness and reliability.

Eye contact is important, but too much with your seniors (in age or status) can be seen as disrespectful. The Japanese sometimes look away or sit silently with their eyes closed when they are part of an audience.

Negative emotions are expressed subtly, for example by inhaling through clenched teeth, tilting the head or scratching an eyebrow.

Many Japanese rules are created around the concept of ‘saving face’. The Japanese try to avoid confrontation or causing a person any form of embarrassment by putting them on the spot. This makes it rude to reject an invitation or request. Instead of directly declining, say you will consider the invitation or propose an alternative.

(Sources:, and Park Point University.)


As mentioned in the introduction to this section, Japan shares many pastimes with the West — from eating out, cinema and live music to sports and reading — but the details will be different.

Here are a few popular Japanese hobbies:

  • Manga: comics and anime (animated movies, usually for adults.)
  • Karaoke: the key difference in Japan is that you tend to get a private room for you and your friends, rather than a room full of strangers. Also, Japanese karaoke usually features an extensive number of song choices, running into the thousands.
  • Gaming: this isn’t simply video games in arcades, but a whole host of physical and strategy games from air hockey to dancing games.
  • Sports: baseball and soccer are popular player and spectator sports. More traditional sports include kyudo (archery) and the martial art, karate.

Other hobbies include traditional flower arranging (ikebana), calligraphy (shodo), and growing bonsai.



You may encounter electronic toilets, some with more than 30 buttons on a control panel to wash, heat, spray and dry yourself — not to mention a plastic cover that moves every time it’s used. There are robotic arms that squirt water, a bidet function and a ‘Kansō’ for drying off. Additional buttons let you control the jet stream, angle and location of the water.


Children from Japan lead the world in numeracy and literacy skills, and its school system is ranked joint ninth by the World Economic Forum.

Six years at elementary school and three years at junior high school are compulsory, though not for foreign nationals. Expat children may enter local elementary/junior high schools if they choose. Children can choose to go to senior high school (three years) and university (usually four years).

It’s helpful to contact your nearest municipal office for more information on schools that are suitable for expat children. Schools and colleges will all be either national, public or private and there are special schools for children with disabilities or special educational needs.

Most schools operate on a three-term system with new school years starting in April. Except for the youngest children, an average school day lasts six hours. After school, children have other tasks and homework to do, often during holidays too.

Every class has its own classroom where students take all the courses, except for practical training and laboratory work. During elementary education, in most cases, one teacher teaches all the subjects for each class. The number of students in one class is usually under 40.

In a 2012 study, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)found that Japanese students:

In addition:

  • 85% of students in Japan feel happy in school
  • 91% say they never, or only in some classes, ignore what the teacher says
  • 93% say their teacher rarely or never waits a long time for students to settle down
  • 70% of students take an after-school workshop.


Religion does not play a big role in the everyday life of most Japanese people today, especially in the big cities where religious activities and rituals are not common. Many people only engage in religious activities at ceremonies such as births, weddings and funerals. Some may visit a shrine or temple on New Year and participate in local festivals (matsuri), most of which have a religious background.

Shinto and Buddhism are Japan's two major religions and many people follow both. While Shinto is as old as the Japanese culture, Buddhism arrived from the mainland in the 6th century.

Attitudes to expats

Most people who travel to Japan have very positive experiences of Japanese people, finding them warm, friendly, honest, polite, generous and helpful. What do the Japanese really think of Westerners? One writer says the Japanese think that they’re the only people who take their shoes off before entering a room and that all Westerners are white, blonde and have blue eyes, can’t use chopsticks, speak English and are more promiscuous than themselves.

Meanwhile one report stated that one in three foreigners experienced discrimination in Japan, from being denied accommodation to derogatory remarks. This may be reflected in the 2017 HSBC expat survey that showed expats didn’t rate Japan highly for making friends (ranking 46th) or integration (ranked 36th). Despite this and with other great benefits, Japan still ranked higher overall, coming in at 29th best country for expats (out of 46).

Discover what the climate and geography of Japan has to offer.

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