7 Key Differences Between Japanese and Western Culture — and why it's worth paying attention to them!

Anyone who has travelled to Japan will tell you about the country's delicious cuisine, its beautiful countryside and the friendliness of the Japanese people, and they'll probably also tell you about the country's fascinating culture.

If you're travelling to Japan from Europe, the USA or Australia for the first time, then it's a good idea to read up on some of the cultural differences that you might experience when you get there. Like with many other countries, social customs are extremely important in Japan, so having knowledge of them is definitely useful.

Here's a guide to some of the key differences.

Using chopsticks is one of the key basic things you need to learn in Japan.

Using chopsticks is one of the key basic things you need to learn in Japan.

Table manners

While Westerners are taught as kids not to rest their elbows on the table as they eat, chopstick etiquette is the main focus of table manners in Japan. It's considered impolite to cross them or leave them sticking into your food and, of course, there is the correct way to hold them.

In a similar vein to saying 'Grace' before a meal in countries such as the USA and the UK, Japanese diners also like to say 'itadakimasu' — a ritual that pays respect to the chef or the food itself, rather than God. These are just two of a number of common table rules there.

Such manners are in keeping with the extremely polite Japanese culture, where talking loudly and invading personal space are also frowned upon. These are often at the root of the differences between Japan and the more open and brash Western societies.

Leaving a tip

Once you finish eating a meal in a Japanese restaurant, it might be tempting to work out the tip amount if you're from a Western country. It's a huge part of American culture, for example, and staff can often get angry if they don't receive their service fee on top of the meal cost. The low working wage for wait staff there means they often depend on the typical 18-20% tip.

In Japan, the opposite is true. Born out of a culture that specialises in superb hospitality, restaurant staff are expected to provide top-quality service in exchange for the price quoted on the menu — nothing more. A tip is definitely not expected, and if you do absent-mindedly leave one, you're likely to have a waitress running down the street after you to return it. So, diners often show their appreciation in other ways, such as verbal compliments, or even by leaving napkin-based origami on the table as a small gift.

Using mobile phones on public transport

Mobile phones are visible, and audible, everywhere in Western society. Commuters in New York and London are used to the sound of people shouting down their handsets while on the Metro, the beeping sounds of games like Angry Birds, or even the odd movie from time to time.

The scene is often very different in Japan, however. People there generally use their phones more discreetly and tend to have quiet public conversations in public, if at all.

Of course, it's not as if Angry Birds doesn't exist in Japan: people play all types of mobile games, too — including free casino games seeing as real-money games are against the law — but these are often 'on silent' to avoid annoying fellow passengers.

So, if you're fond of playing games to pass the time, hit the mute button while in Japan!

Work ethic

Many Westerners think they work too much. However, a recent report about US working hours — typically regarded as the most overworked Western nation — said employees work an average of 34.2 hours per week.

What marks the difference between the two nations is not just the longer working hours in Japan but the attitude to work, or the work ethic.

The Japanese concept of shokunin, or 'pride in one's work', is key to the work culture there. It's not just an idea, it's a philosophy: every worker is aware of how their task contributes to society and what they should do to perform at the highest level. This concept applies from company CEOs to street cleaners and, as such, people very rarely complain about their tasks.

Western visitors will notice this in the dedication Japanese people devote to their tasks, and might be extremely impressed by it.

Extreme punctuality

An emphasis on efficiency is obvious in Japanese society and punctuality plays a key part in this. While in Western culture it's generally acceptable to be five or ten minutes late, in Japan you're expected to arrive at the exact arranged time.

Visitors should make every effort to arrive on time if they don't want to offend their Japanese counterparts — it's the reason why you'll often see people running down the street in Japanese cities, desperate to make the appointed time.

While some Westerners might be shocked by the strictness of it all, there are some advantages. Trains are always extremely punctual — you may hear an announcement of apology if a bullet train is even a few seconds late! — and you'll find that you waste much less valuable time.

Dropping litter is very serious

In keeping with the Japanese sense of civic duty, visitors will find the streets to be spotless once they arrive. This is partly because dropping litter is a grave offence across the country, and punishments range from a heavy fine to prison sentences, in extreme examples.

The custom of taking your trash home, and taking part in social cleaning schemes in your neighborhood are some of the other reasons why you just won't find a dirty Japanese street. Westerners should take note!

Bowing while kneeling is a common display of welcome or appreciation.

Bowing while kneeling is a common display of welcome or appreciation.

No hand shaking

Finally, we arrive at maybe the most obvious difference between the two cultures. Shaking hands is considered unclean in Japan, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic, so visitors are expected to bow as a greeting instead.

For more informal occasions, this can simply be a polite nod of the head but there are occasions where you are expected to bow. There are even four types of bows that reflect emotions, such as gratitude, but generally speaking, the deeper the bow the more respect you show.

While a lot of Westerners put effort into mastering the art of the bow, they can often get it wrong, but this won't be taken too seriously by their hosts — the effort will be appreciated and that's what counts in these situations.

So, if you're a visitor heading to Japan, or even a Japanese person going the other way, it's always useful to take note of cultural differences. While they can be a headache to remember, they can also help us in some awkward social situations!

Related content