21 Things You Should Know Before Moving to Japan
Konnichiwa! We’d like to talk to you about Japan. Whether you’re moving there permanently or just paying a visit, you’re in for a shock. Japanese culture is guaranteed to blow the mind of any westerner. It’s a beautiful, bizarre mixture of the very old and the ultra new. One day you’re walking between ancient temples and cherry blossom trees, the next day you’re sitting on a talking toilet.
There are certain things you must do in Japan and certain things you must not do – and we’d hate for you to get them the wrong way around. We’ll be busting some myths, teaching some truths and ultimately whetting your appetite for the Land of the Rising Sun. Read on!
The Tokyo cityscape at nighttime (see the Skytree on the right)
1. They have an ageing population
Japan has one of the world’s best life expectancies (nearly 84 years), which sounds wonderful. However, combine that with a falling birth rate and you’re in trouble. The proportion of over-65-year-olds is skyrocketing and young people aren’t having enough babies to make up for it. Jobs are more important and everyone’s too busy to think about starting a family. Over 25% of the Japanese population is aged over 65 and this is expected to reach 40% by 2055. That’s a lot of elderly people and not enough young people to look after them.
Enter: robots. Prime Minister Shinzō Abe thinks artificial intelligence might be the answer. He wants to quadruple the number of robots working in the Japanese economy. If this sinister robotic future won’t teach the youth to have more kids, we don’t know what will.
2. Hi-tech toilets
Are you a fan of going to the toilet? If your answer was an enthusiastic ‘yes!’ then you will love Japan. Lavatory experiences are flashy affairs over there. The ultra-intelligent toilets, known as the ‘washlet’ or woshuretto, have more functions than you’ll know what to do with. Think water jets, seat-warmers, auto-flushes, weighing scales and a deodorizer.
There are even some models that greet you when you enter, lift the lid up for you and play artificial flush noises while you ‘go’. They sound like expensive pieces of kit to an outsider, but in Japan you can find them in most restaurants, hotels and over half of all households. You’ll never want to use a manual flush ever again.
3. Bullet trains
Train travel in Japan is famously rapid. The average speed of the Shinkansen bullet train is a lightning 155mph, while the record for a Japanese bullet train is 375mph. Basically, they don’t like wasting their time on getting to places. For example, there are nearly 320 miles between Tokyo and Kyoto, but hop on the 8:00am train from the capital city and you’ll be in Kyoto before 10:20am. We were going to say “assuming there are no delays”, but that doesn’t really apply; the average delay is just 36 seconds. It’s very impressive.
Once you’re sat on a fancy toilet inside a bullet train, you know you’re living the high life.
The Shinkansen bullet train zooms in front of Mount Fuji
4. Tokyo is big
And we mean really big. Put a map of the Greater Metropolitan Area of Tokyo on top of the UK and it pretty much stretches from the top of London to the bottom of Manchester. It has a population of nearly 39 million people, which makes it the most populous city on Earth.
If that achievement wasn’t enough, Tokyo is also forecast to have the tallest building in the world, called the Sky Mile Tower (to be completed by 2045, if you can wait that long). The city is neon-lit and futuristic, full of skyscrapers and modern gadgets, which is why it’s so weird that Tokyo doesn’t actually have a 24-hour metro system. That’s right: if you want to head home after 1am then it’s either a pricey taxi or a nighttime stroll.
5. The countryside is beautiful
Read an article about Japan and all you see is “Tokyo this, Kyoto that”, it’s ridiculous. The cities are impressive but the Japanese countryside is practically dripping with charm. Almost 70% of the country is forest and over 80% of it is mountainous, which is too much to ignore. Some of the rural spots you can visit sound like parts of a fairytale, such as the Blue Pond of Biei, the creaking Bamboo Forest of Sagano and the baby-blue flower fields of Hitachi. There are snowy mountains to the north, sand dunes to the west and the gorgeous beaches of Okinawa to the south. It’s enough natural variety to make your head spin.
Whenever you’re sick of the city, just head out in any direction and eventually you’ll hit something lovely.
Trees growing out of the beautifully bright Blue Pond of Biei
6. Cherry blossom fever
The Japanese are mad for flowers. Particularly sakura, known as ‘cherry blossom’, which bursts into bloom across the country once a year. It all starts at the southern tip of Japan in January and then moves upwards in a big pink wave, not reaching the northernmost islands until May. Centuries ago, people would gather under the trees for hanami (‘flower viewing’) parties, sipping on sake and admiring the colours.
Today, the enthusiasm for this pinkness is extreme. Every brand releases a cherry blossom-flavoured version of its product. There’s the Starbucks sakura coffee (the mighty Sakura Strawberry Pink Mochi Frappuccino), the Asahi sakura beer (Cherry Blossom Banquet), sakura KitKats, sakura ice-cream, sakura Pepsi, cherry-blossom-and-butter crisps, we could go on for a very long time. Teams of meteorologists try to predict when the cherry blossom will bloom and broadcast their forecasts on television. It’s crazy, it’s pink and it’s very Japanese.
However, there’s also a tinge of sadness to the whole affair; the flowers last only for a week before floating off to their deaths. Sakura is the ultimate Japanese symbol of the beautiful, fleeting nature of life.
7. It's super safe
People just aren’t that interested in crime over there. Perhaps the annual cherry blossom just soothes the hell out of everyone. The Japanese language does have a word for ‘crime’ (hanzai) but what’s the point? Drug use, gun violence and homicide rates are all mercifully low over there. The Global Peace Index 2017 ranked Japan as the 10th most crime-free nation on Earth, which is incredible for a country of 127 million people.
Likewise, in the same year, the Economist named Tokyo the safest city in the world (and Osaka third). If it’s the thrill of violent crime you’re looking for, Japan is not for you.
8. Tattoos are taboo
Think your tattoos look good? Well Japan doesn’t. If you’ve permanently marked your body with ink then you’ve tainted a gift that your parents gave you. That’s basically the traditional Japanese way of thinking. They like to respect their elders and a big inky flower going up your left forearm is not the way to do it. What’s more, tattoos are associated with crime in Japan (yes ok, they do have a little bit of crime). Not only did the Japanese used to mark their criminals with a tattoo, but full-body tattoos are also worn by members of the Yakuza, Japan’s organised crime syndicate.
They sound scary but they’re actually mildly legitimate, regulated and monitored by the Japanese government. Some crime groups even have corporate logos and pension plans. Nevertheless, tattoos are a big no-no. Most importantly, anybody with a tattoo isn’t allowed in an onsen. That won’t sound like a big deal until you learn how amazing onsens are.
9. The amazing onsens
Japan has loads of natural hot springs (called onsens) and they’re just wonderful. Being a volcanic country has its disadvantages, but you also get nice places to bathe in. Many onsens are located in beautiful rural villages, so bathers can sit in the hot water while they gaze out at the surrounding countryside. It is a tranquility like no other.
However, on the less tranquil side, you have to be naked and so does everyone else. Tattoos aren’t allowed and you’ve got no way of hiding them. The water in the hot spring actually needs to be at least 25°C to be an official onsen, so don’t be wasting your time bathing in one of those pathetic 24°C-wannabe-onsens.
The steamy Shibu Onsen in Nagano, central Japan
10. There isn't much holiday
There’s a lot to see and do in Japan but not really enough time for seeing or doing. The working population have been dealt a poor hand when it comes to holiday allowance. A popular Japanese approach is to retire at 65, live another 20 years and just spend all your time swimming in onsens. All full-time employees in Japan are guaranteed a minimum of only 10 days paid holiday (although it grows with service). On top of this, an Ipsos Global poll found that just 35% of Japanese workers are using up their full holiday allowance. There are actually 16 days of public holiday, but this comes with the added issue that everyone is on holiday at the same time. This means higher prices and bigger crowds in the nicest places.
In the 1970s, Japan even felt the need to create the word karoshi, meaning ‘death from overwork’, which is still a huge problem today. A nursing-care business in Tokyo called Saint-Works actually makes all its employees wear purple capes that display the time that their shift ends, just so they don’t forget to clock off. In Japan, people go hard but they forget to go home.
11. Golden Week
The period between 29th April and 5th May (probably) means very little to you, but for the Japanese it means the longest holiday period of the year. It contains four public holidays, so most people just chuck in a few paid holidays and then take the whole week off. Many companies are resigned to this and shut down for the entire period. The days are Showa Day, Constitution Day, Greenery Day and Children’s Day. That much time off work sounds like fun, but it also means that all the domestic holiday spots are extremely busy. If you hate crowds then perhaps you should just stay at work during Golden Week.
It’s rumoured that 2019 will feature a ten-day Golden Week because of the Emperor’s expected abdication, but nobody knows for sure. Calendar makers are understandably really annoyed because they don’t know what to do, so they’re pressuring the government to make a final decision. We can only imagine their frustration.
12. Sleeping anywhere is fine
In Japan, the whole world is your bed. Sleep wherever you want and nobody will bat an eyelid. People work so damn hard over there, it’s only fair that they can nod off whenever they want. The proper word for it is inemuri, which means ‘sleeping while present’. Essentially, you’ll find people napping willy-nilly in whatever public location they please, from department stores and restaurants to park benches. It’s also very common in the workplace, as long as you remain upright while you sleep (like you have any control over that).
Unfortunately, fake-sleeping has also become a popular pastime in Japan, which just makes everything a whole lot more confusing. It’s called tanuki neiri, which means ‘raccoon dog sleep’. Some employees pretend to be asleep so they can show their bosses how ruddy hard they’ve been working. Yes, the inemuri system is clearly a little flawed.
13. The unspoken rules
The main problem with unspoken rules is that nobody’s actually going to tell you them. If you start to break one in public, everybody around you will start to think you’re a terribly offensive moron, and you won’t know why. We’d like to spare you the embarrassment and tell you some of the rules now.
Firstly, don’t be too loud in public, especially on trains. If you’re travelling by rail, you should avoid phone calls, loud conversations and blowing your nose. People can’t achieve their Japanese tranquility if you’re nearby making a racket. Don’t leave a tip in restaurants unless you want to offend the staff. Always remove your shoes when you enter someone’s house. If you ever find yourself receiving someone’s business card, take it with two hands and then read it a bit before putting it away.
Finally, loudly slurping your noodles is fine. It’s sounds gross but quiet eating will probably draw more stares. Slurp away!
Shoppers stroll through Nishiki market in Kyoto
14. Karaoke is life
Imagine a hotel but where every room has a karaoke machine inside of it. These rooms are called karaoke boxes and they’re all over Japan. Walk into a karaoke club, tell them how many people you have, how long you’d like to sing for and they’ll take you to your room. You can dress up in costumes, control the lighting and order drinks on the telephone. Some rooms also come with a box of simple instruments (e.g. tambourine or maracas) for people who hate singing. When it’s their turn to sing, they can say “No it’s ok, I’ll just play the maracas”.
These karaoke clubs can get rather ridiculous, ranging from colossal 100-person rooms to singing in a hot tub. Some people take it so seriously that they feel the need to hire professional coaches. Office workers love going to karaoke clubs for hours after they finish work, so if you want to make it with your new colleagues then you best start practising.
15. Know your J-pop
Your new Japanese life won’t be complete without regular blasts of plastic, overproduced Japanese pop, or J-pop. This kind of music hasn’t really found a proper audience in the western world, but it’s huge in Japan. Most of it is sung in Japanese (apart from the odd cool-sounding English word) and every song comes with a painfully choreographed, high-budget music video. J-pop has a very shiny exterior, but the life behind it is truly gruelling. Pop hopefuls have to go through years of intense training in their teens before becoming part of a boy-band or girl-band. Their lives become run by the jimusho (management agencies) and there isn’t much freedom.
Back in 2013, Minami Minegishi, a member of massive J-pop band AKB48, got in major trouble when people found out that she had a boyfriend. In response, she shaved her head and sent a teary-eyed apology video to her fans. Minegishi was allowed to stay in the band but she was demoted to a junior level (there are over 90 members). Are you sure you want to be a pop star?
16. All teeth are beautiful
If you’ve got wonky teeth then there’s a group of people who think that’s just fabulous. Yes, it’s the Japanese! Instead of going to have their teeth straightened, young women over there like to make their teeth a bit more funky. It’s called ‘double tooth’ (or yaeba), which sounds a bit like the name of an old pirate. You might think it seems strange, but wonky teeth are a sign of youthfulness.
There’s even a girl-band (TYB48) made up entirely of snaggletoothed members. Head to a dental clinic in Japan and they will put false canines on top of your actual canines, to make it look like you have child-like fangs. People basically want a mouth that looks ‘crowded’ with teeth. It’s a lovely idea.
17. They LOVE cats
Think of the thing you love the most and then multiply that love by 1000. That’s how much the Japanese love cats. Maybe even more than that. They treat their cats like fluffy royalty and the cats don’t even know or care. It’s a one-way relationship and the Japanese are absolutely fine with that. Japan’s cat cafés are pretty famous now, but have you heard of cat cemeteries or cat islands? Over on the southern island of Aoshima, the cats outnumber the humans six to one. Over one hundred cats prowl around like they own the place, living in abandoned houses. If the robots don’t take all the Japanese jobs then the cats will.
A couple of years ago, a disdainful feline called Nitama was appointed the role of stationmaster at Kishi train station, Wakayama. The stationmaster has to wear a hat, and apparently Nitama was hired because she “doesn’t dislike wearing a hat”. Imagine being given a job just because you don’t hate the uniform.
A fluffy white cat sits in a Japanese temple
18. Animal cafés
Eating and drinking in the company of cute animals is very important over there. A cup of coffee and a slice of cake tastes twice as good when there’s an adorable mammal staring at it. Japan still offers the crème de la crème of the world’s cat cafés, such as Tokyo’s Kichijouji Petit Mura set in a mini fairytale castle, but it doesn’t stop at cats.
If you want furry company but with a bit more love thrown in, there are the dog cafés. There’s a bunny cafe called RAAGF, which stands for “rabbit and grow fat”. If you want to trade the fur for spikes, check out Harry, a hedgehog café in Tokyo. The Penguin Bar Ikebukuro in Tokyo has a modest family of four penguins, which you can’t touch but you can certainly stare at them joyfully while you drink. Likewise, there has to be a little bit of distance between the diners and the animals in the goat cafés and the snake cafés, but we think that’s probably for the best.
19. They eat a fish that might kill you
The pufferfish might look cute with its big eyes and huggable body, but it will actually kill you. That’s right, fugu (‘river pig’) is horribly poisonous, and yet it’s one of Japan’s most expensive delicacies. The fish is basically one big bag of toxins that are 1000 times more powerful than cyanide. Chefs need to get a proper license before they are legally allowed to chop it up in their kitchens. Then, stupidly brave diners will pay upwards of £70 for the privilege of eating it. Many diners have noted that fugu is pretty tasteless and has a similar texture to chicken, so it doesn’t even sound like it’s worth the risk.
Tasteless and expensive death on a plate. Mmm.
20. There are earthquakes
A lot of them. About 1,500 earthquakes hit the country every year. You’re barely over one wobble before the shaking begins again. Japan is located along the Pacific Ring of Fire, which is about as fun as it sounds. Around 90% of the world’s earthquakes take place along this huge fault line, so Japan has more quakes than it knows what to do with. Some terrible incidents have taken place in the country’s recent past, namely the 9-magnitude 2011 earthquake which killed nearly 20,000 people.
Fortunately, the Japanese have got very good at preparing for the worst and many of their urban buildings have fancy anti-earthquake designs. Most impressive are the Shinkansen bullet trains; the moment a quake begins, a train travelling at 187mph can come to a halt within 300m. Yowza!
21. Japanese has three alphabets
If you think Japanese sounds difficult to learn, wait until you hear about the alphabets. There are three of them, called kanji, hiragana and katakana, and you basically need to get your head around each one before you can fully understand the language.
Hiragana has 26 letters, so that’s the same as the Latin alphabet. Katakana has 46 letters, which is a bit bigger but still manageable. Get these two under your belt and then you just need to master kanji, which is a quick 2000 letters. The shorter alphabets are used for grammar while kanji is used for concepts, but they’re all as important as each other. If this sounds like too much effort then you could just rely on sign language and smiles.
Hopefully you’re feeling a little more clued up on Japan. ‘21 things’ barely scratches the surface of their culture, but it’s probably given you a fairly good idea. Japan is lucky to have such a rich ancient history, but it’s also got a seriously exciting future. How fast will the bullet trains travel in twenty years? Will they be able to travel in time? If so, how fast? The questions are endless and nobody knows the answers. If you’ve got your hāto set on Japan then a life of talking toilets and cherry blossom coffees await. Just scrub your tattoos off before you get on the plane.