Category: Japanese Culture

Japan and Nomyunikeishon (nommunication)

I can’t drink. Is it a problem, to blend in the society in Japan?

Hello there.

My name is Rié (<a href=”https://twitter.com/rielondon” target=”_blank”><i class=”fa fa-twitter”></i>rielondon</a>)- I’m a Japanese interpreter based in London.

My step-son is studying Japanese at university and every now and again asks me questions. Interesting questions, as they have never occurred to me…!

Today, I am going to try and answer one of his friends’ questions.

Here we go…

My friend doesn’t drink because of an allergy (not sure to what) and he wondered if for him to get along socially in Japan, whether the sort of ‘social/drinking culture ‘ meant he’d be left out?

Nomenai? – No.  It shouldn’t be much of a problem.

If your friend is out for a big night, and everybody else is drinking hard, others may not understand straight away as to WHY your friend isn’t drinking with them.

Some may need more explanation than others before they get it, and others may read too much into it, wondering whether it is an excuse and that he actually doesn’t like hanging out with them.

I’m only kidding! Don’t worry.

Seriously, if he wants to make sure his friends have understood and know that he wants to be friends with them, then he can prepare a simple enough story.

Story that is true to describe that happened to him in the past, or to others people he knows. I’m sure they would appreciate his honesty.

Perhaps, it is  helpful if he helped them whether it is the drink and drink only that he can’t take or that he actually doesn’t like the drinking atomosphere either.

Nomenai! In terms of friendship building,

…or other sort of ‘ship’ building he is trying to nurture, Nommucation (combination of words between ‘nomu’ 飲む or 呑む= to drink in Japanese and English word loaned ‘communication’) becomes more important once in professional life, I’d imagine.

If and when he works in Japan, and one day he is invited for a drink, a casual ‘after 5’ (or after 8pm, I don’t know) for example, then even if he can’t drink he should still come along — if he wants to.

He doesn’t have to drink alcohol. He can drink 0% alcohol beer instead! It wouldn’t be so noticeable that he actually is not consuming alcohol, as long as he is there with them, having a good time together.

Nomenai!! If your friend happens to dislike alcohol flavour altogether,

…then it’s a different story.

But don’t you worry.

I’m only saying this because there is a better idea.

Have you heard of an illness called ‘gout’?

If you haven’t heard before, you can look it up easily. It is called Tsuuhuu (Tsuufuu) 痛風(つうふう)in Japanese.

He could tell them he suffers from gout, or if he is too young to have that problem he could say his father (a white lie!) does and therefore he needs to be careful as well or something along the line.

And — don’t forget to add the most important part as follows:

Nevertheless, he loves hanging out (with his friends), and he can even suggest where to go and what to do, if he feels up for it.

I hope above helps 😉

What’s your Japanese culture-related experience?


Photo: http://nomenai.blue/column/

11 Things You Thought You Knew about Japan – 2 of 2


In the last blog post, I introduced the first half of this article.  I mentioned Japanese Curry, Climates & Local Foods, the National Flower, Population and the Language in Japan.  This week, I am going to continue by starting with the 6th item.  For the previous part, please read 1 of 2 for “11 Things You Thought You Knew about Japan.”

6. Taking off shoes

When you go to someone’s house you are expected to take off your shoes.  I believe quite a lot of people know this already.  But did you know you’re supposed to turn the shoes heels against the edge of the Genkan – Japanese entry area of the house? Your shoes should be facing the exit.

When you’ve done that, you can proceed to the rest of the house.  The reason for doing so is for efficiency, as well as manners, to keep the shoes tidy and in the direction of going out that you don’t have to look for your pair being all over the place even when there are many shoes.

However, there is an exceptional occasion.  Mind you this might be trivia so not every Japanese person knows this.  If you’re going to a house on an occasion like funeral or a wake, don’t flip your shoes against the edge of the entry area of the house.  Some people say the spirit of the deceased will follow you as they see your shoes being ready to leave efficiently and quickly from the occasion.

At the funeral it is common that you’ll be handed a sachet of salt.  When you go home, before entering your house, sprinkle the salt over your shoulders and be conscious to leave the funeral or wake behind and not to bring it into your house.

7. Bathing

When you’re going to the bath you mean you’re going to clean.  In Japan, this is not the case.  Bath is more than a place to clean yourself.  In fact, don’t wash yourself IN the bathtub.  Wash lightly and discretely before going in to the bathtub.

There is an area next to it where you can wash yourself with removable shower head, a stool where you can sit in front of a mirror to wash your face, head and what have you.

Bath water in the tub is usually shared typically among family members and even with guests if they have them.

It is manners to keep the water reasonably clean by picking up hairs and other stuff before you leave the room.  For guests, it is courteous to ask them to take the first turn to take a bath while the water is fresh.  A lot of times, small children get in the bath together with their parent and it is a time and a place to communicate.

8. Tattoos

Tattoos might be perceived as fashion or personal statement, but in Japan it means something different. To be exact, it is practical to distinguish in two categories: 1. Traditional Irezumi and 2. Tattoos.  The second one is more of a recent thing, a fashionable style with Western influence.  For convenience, please allow me to distinguish them by calling them differently in this article.

The traditional stuff — Irezumi — is deeply associated with Yakuza, Japanese mafia, and it is seen and considered antisocial.  Nowadays, a lot of (young) people have ‘tattoos’ for fashion than representing their tribal association with Yakuza.  However, both Irezumi and Tattoos are received negatively and it can be a problem if you love Japanese public bath because tattoos are usually banned.

I love public baths, especially Onsen (hot springs/spa).  So, I will never risk that by putting tattoos on my body.  Why they’re banned?  That’s a good question, actually.  I hear it is because Irezumi/tattoos intimidate other customers and scare them away.  But I know for a fact there is also sanitary and clinical reasons especially when tattoos are new, and the public bath owners do not want to be liable or involved in such troubles either.  Let alone they don’t want to be associated with negative image it conveys.

9. Tea

When we say tea in Japan, it can mean from Green Tea, Brown Tea, Red Tea (normal tea in England) to all other sorts.  Green tea, for example, is appropriate for many occasions, but the major misunderstanding is how to make it.  Unlike other kinds of tea, green tea requires a more delicate approach to savour it to the full extent.  I’m sure there are other ways but this is what I do with green tea.

First, it is important to know how to store it.  I store green tea leaves/bags in the freezer, not in a cupboard at room temperature.  Because the leaves go yellow we call it ‘leaves catches a cold’ and basically the flavour is long gone by the time it gets to this stage.  You don’t want that.

Now, let’s make tea with fresh green tea leaves.  Please note, don’t use boiling hot water, because it’d be too hot.  Instead, bring it to boil but wait till the water temperature is around 70 degree centigrade.  And then quietly pour into the pot with tea leaves.

How would you know the water is cool enough but I don’t want to use a thermometer?  Mix cold water!  Don’t tell this to tea ceremony gurus, they might not like it.  Hard water is not ideal for green tea anyway, don’t be a perfectionist – be practical.  This is just a quick solution but it helps.

Boiling water is 100 degree centigrade.  If you put cold water up to 1/3 of the pot first and then add boiling water up to the full level you will get around 70 degree centigrade, wouldn’t you?  Calculate by how cold the cold water you are using is.  Brew for a couple of minutes and it’s ready to serve.

Brown tea, called Houji-cha or O-ban-cha, is very easy to drink after a meal.  It is mild but not sweet.  It is one of the first drinks given to even babies, of course it will be lukewarm or at room temperature when given to them.

In summer, barley tea — Mugi-cha — is made and stored in the fridge in many households.  For the past decades, Oolong tea has become also popular.  Oolong tea is made from tea leaves but barley is not.  Barley tea is caffeine free and it contains a lot of minerals.  It is healthy and particularly nice chilled to drink after a hot and long summer day.

Here’s one of my school time memories.  Children take barley tea frozen in their flask to school to drink after PE or other sports activities.  The frozen tea will thaw while they are busy attending lessons, and when there are allowed to take a break, they dash to their flasks.  It is such a rewarding moment.  Tea is slowly thawing but is still perfectly cool and chilled.  Kids love it when they come back from playing sports outside all day. (They’re not allowed to drink beer yet… lol)

10. New Year and Chinese New Year

It is known that many Asian countries celebrate Chinese New Year.  However, it’s less known that it is not really celebrated in Japan.  In Japan, New Year is 1 January.  We used to celebrate Chinese New Year, until it was changed to 1 January according to Gregorian calendar during the Meji restoration.

New Year is called お正月 Oshogatsu or 正月 Shogatsu in Japanese, and it does not just mean the first day of the year but the first MONTH of the year.  The second character of 正月(Shogatsu) –so月 –means ‘ month.’  This character means the Moon.  It is the first character for Monday 月曜日 for obvious reasons.  This character is pronounced either gatsu or tsuki, as it changes its reading depending on the context.

11. Christmas and Valentine’s Day

“Do they know it’s Christmas Time At all?” –  Ohh yes, we do.  We do celebrate both Christmas and Valentine’s Day, but we just do it ‘slightly’ (?) differently.  How different is it?  For example, Christmas is definitely the most important national holiday in Christian countries, but in Japan t is not a holiday.

Having said that, a great many people enjoy it as a very joyous, festive season.  The streets, buildings, shops and some houses are decorated with lights – this part is quite similar to the West.  However, one BIG difference I would say, or even odd (?) difference might be, we don’t eat turkey.

We BUY a substitute from somewhere.  This somewhere is – KFC – Kentucky Fried Chicken.  If you get to spend Yuletide in Japan, you’ll probably see KFC adverts on TV all the time. It is absolutely one of the biggest campaign season for them.   They’ll be sending out messages “Speaking of Christmas, it’s KFC. Let’s have KFC for Christmas.”

I might have been living in the West for too long.  I can’t spend Christmas without Christmas Dinner.   I even miss Pumpkin Pie on Thanks Giving where I don’t even live in the states!!  There is another reason why Turkey or Goose are not common in Japan.  It is not because they don’t like them.  It is because not many houses have an oven – That’s why!

Valentine’s Day in Japan is interpreted even more differently.  The original meaning was, not quite lost in translation, but construed differently.  Besides, I’m not sure if people know the actual meaning of the day.  I really think any average Japanese person probably has never thought about it.  There is no doubt they will not think of the martyrdom of the Saint Valentine, before thinking of chocolate.

But why chocolate?  There are several theories.  Whatever the truth is, definitely it is the day you will see enough chocolate to even put off a choc-freak.  St Valentine’s Day is, for girls, they ‘have-to-buy-chocolate’ day, and for boys it is the ‘have-to-receive-chocolate-or-you’re-a-sad-individual’ day.

St. Valentine’s defiance in performing marriages in secret for young lovers, somehow turned into the day that ‘even’ girls are allowed to make confession of love to boys.  Where it would be considered daring otherwise.  They are ‘allowed’ to be proactive for the day.  They’re encouraged to give chocolate to the men they fancy.

This may be a serious day for teenage girls and boys, but in general, it is more of a custom.

Some people argue it was because of Morozoff, one of the major confectionery & cake companies in Japan, who introduced St. Valentine’s Day to the country, and that other confectionery companies followed to promote their sales.

Be it true or not, and whether I like the idea or not, chocolate for St. Valentine’s Day and that it is always that girls have to buy for boys has not changed for a long time.

For more information on St Valentine’s Day in Japan, see Giri Choco (obligatory chocolate) and other variations of chocolate giving.

Written by Rie


11 Things You Thought You Knew about Japan – 1 of 2

Mt. Fuji View

This week, I’d like to share with you 11 things that people think they know about Japan.   

Hang on a minute – What about Japanese people?  What do they think they know about the UK? 

I think it is not overstating for me to say that tens of thousands of people in Japan don’t know much about the UK.  

For example, when I lived in Northern Ireland, a few Japanese friends of mine asked me questions like:

“what language do they speak, can you understand them and make yourself understood alright?”

“Are there polar bears?”

– It shows how much, or how little, we know about each other. 

Likewise, I think it is fair to say that the majority of British people know little about Japan.

It’s been over 20 years since I saw Mr Duff, a English teacher on British Affairs from England.  

He said to his students that he expected all Japanese people to look like Samurai, wearing Kimono, when he first came to Japan (quite a few years ago then, but still).  

He was proven wrong soon after his plane landed and got his feet off the steps – dove into this big city in the Far East called Tokyo.

“C’mon, it’s been over 300 years since those feudal time ended.  You’ve got to be kidding!

I thought.  I was one of his students, and at that time, I couldn’t get my head around why on earth he should think that.  

I thought:

“surely, he’s seen footage on TV of modern era, everyone wears Western style clothes!?  

And, everyone must have known about the huge economic development in Japan over the past 40 years, if anything.  

Where did he get this idea from??”

Over 10 years later, after I graduated from the university and moved to London.

It was only then that I gradually started to understand where his stereotypes might have come from.  

In London, the buildings have not changed too much in the past 50 years for example, compared to the way Japan’s cities have changed.  

They have changed so much that I wouldn’t be surprised if you couldn’t recognise it as the same country if someone showed you a picture 50 years ago and another of now.

 1.      Japanese Curry

Have you ever been to a Japanese restaurant and ordered Chicken Katsu Curry?  

Did you wonder why curry in Japanese restaurant as Japanese menu??  

Besides their curry looks nothing like Indian curry – where does it come from? 

Well, you’re not the only one – I wondered about that myself…!

Curry in Japan or FROM Japan is believed to have been introduced to the country via British Navy in the Meiji era (late 19th century).  

The Imperial Japanese Navy adopted it from them.  

At that time it was considered to be Western cuisine for that reason, and has been loved by the whole population ever since.  

The ‘authentic’ or original Indian style curry is differentiated from what’s called ‘curry (ka-ray)’ in Japan.  

It is usually called “Indo Karee,” but it doesn’t change the fact that both have been popular in Japan, although Indian style curry is seen as relatively ‘new’ in Japan. 

The curry which came via the English Navy has developed and evolved in its own way, such as almost every household has their own recipe and way of making it.  

There are such a wide range of curry and curry-inspired menu available in many restaurants in Japan – which proves its popularity in the country. 

The interesting thing is, it is said that “curry is not much affected in economy down turns or recessions” as it becomes all the more popular because it is most affordable as well as tasty.

2.     Climates & Local Foods 

No, it is not tropical all over, and yes, in summer, you can easily encounter scorching heat.  
Japan is an island nation – an archipelago extending wide east and west, and north and south as well.  

The northern part of the country generally has cooler summers and colder winter, whilst the southern part of the country has relatively warmer summer and milder winter.  
It does get a lot hotter than in the UK or many other European countries, nevertheless, it does get cold in winter and can get colder than in Europe. 

In certain areas, especially big cities with concentrated population and architectures, summer heat waves can be serious.  
Thousands of people were rushed to hospital and some deaths were reported last summer.  
In winter, lately there have been Heavy Snow Warnings and hundreds of injuries. 

None the less, spring and autumn are beautiful.  
The climate tends to be mild, and seasonal food, flowers and even specific insects such as fireflies and bell crickets (!) play an essential role in the harmony. 

 3.     National Flower of Japan?

This was the question Mr Duff asked us in the class, and it was so embarrassing that I could never forget – none of us in the class could answer!  
The truth is we don’t have an official one.  
A lot of people in Japan and overseas identify Sakura (cherry blossoms) and perhaps Kiku (chrysanthemum) as our national flower(s), though.

4.     Population in Japan

It is about 125 Million at the moment, which is approximately twice as large as that of Britain and a half of the United States.  
Although having said that, due to the well-known dwindling birth rates, combined with a rapidly ageing population, the population peak of 128 million has been declining.  
On the contrary, pets outnumber children and pet industry is a fast growing industry in the country.  
There are special patisseries and salons for pets; birthday parties held for the pets with their ‘friends’ that are similar to the ones held for children
in Western countries and also there are pet-friendly luxurious accommodations and restaurants.  
This industry has been developing and diversifying.  
It is said that the biggest reason for the country’s dwindling birth rate is less sex as men fear failure and rejection by women.

5.     Japanese Language

Isn’t it a minor language because it is only spoken in Japan?

False: Japanese language is the 9th largest language by the number of speakers who uses it as their mother tongue in the world, and the 4th most used language on the internet. 

There are approximately 125 million mother tongue speakers.  It is called Kokugo (= national language) in Japanese.  
Some people assume Japanese is similar to Chinese, but it is not.  
The word order is completely different to start with.  
In fact, some people argue that Japanese language is a language isolate, whereas there are people counter argue that it belongs to the Altaic language family.

Chinese characters in Japanese language, on the other hand, were ‘imported’ in Heian period (794 till 12th century), and in terms of vocabulary and phonology,
it had a significant influence in Japanese language development.  
Those vocabulary was initially loan words (foreign words) like Katakana, one of the three kinds of major syllabary used in the language, which is usually used to transliterate foreign words. 

Thank you for reading through down here, we’ve managed to cover 5 out of 11 that I promised at the beginning.  
I will continue, next week, by starting with “Festivals & Events in Japan” – see you have a great week ahead, everyone!!


15 Things to Avoid – Gift Giving Etiquette in Japan [en]

What do you think about when you choose a gift for a friend?  Perhaps, something meaningful to them?  A gift for a Japanese colleague in the office?  What if you are choosing a gift for someone you have never met – you could be choosing something for your business partner in Japan before leaving for a meeting with them.  All of a sudden, you’re struck by a question – “I wonder if there are cultural differences in gift giving…?”

I list here 15 things that should be avoided as a gift in Japan.  Having said that, I am not trying to teach you or preach to you that you must do this or you will offend Japanese people’s feelings.  What’s most important is that it’s the thought that counts after all, so please relax and enjoy this introduction to Japanese culture.

I think, usually, people have a margin for foreign friends for making cultural errors.  I mean, people are more tolerant and understanding towards foreigners when it comes to ignorance of their customs, in general – “because they’re only visiting the country, they just can’t necessarily know these things.”

Vice versa, if you knew these things, the Japanese recipients would appreciate your consideration all the more, and it proves your respect towards the recipient’s culture.  It would almost promise the successful communication afterwards, wouldn’t it?

Knowing these 15 things to avoid can come in handy when you do come across such occasions, as you’ll know the answers already so nobody needs to panic – you’ll be ready to pick appropriate presents or enlighten people who need a piece of advice on this subject.

What you should NOT give as a gift.

Japanese custom and tradition are deeply seated in the influence of Shinto philosophy, whether they consciously acknowledge this or not.  Although I wrote down Japanese gift giving taboos, there are some that are similar to Chinese, simply because they are to do with the sound coming from Chinese characters.

For Celebrations – in general

1. Tea     Why? – It is not recommended to choose tea as a gift for most celebrations, because gift wrapped tea is often used as a return gift for funerals or wakes in Japan

2. Handkerchiefs     Why? – In Chinese characters, it writes手布 and is read “tegire”[such as ‘tay-ghee-ray’] and its homonym is 手切れ which means to sever a connection or relationship and it is easily and naturally associated with alimony or severance pay.  There was a scene in an old film in which I saw that a man (or woman? I can’t remember) hand a handkerchief to his girlfriend as a message of ‘goodbye’…!

3. Comb     Why? – Comb in Japanese is “Kushi,” and the sound of ‘ku’ is the same as 苦 (=suffering) and ‘shi’ is the same as 死 (=death), which is obviously not celebratory and it isn’t appropriate at all.  Also, combs and hairbrushes are for hair and a lot of people (especially women) may not feel comfortable sharing them with other people, as there is a superstitious reason that the owners bad luck will be passed on to the borrower.

4. Chrysanthemum     Why? – Chrysanthemum is commonly seen at funerals and there are many people who associate it with sad occasions.  That being said, there are Chrysanthemum Festivals which are popular, hence it is not always necessarily associated with funerals, so I would say it depends on how the recipient feels – personally I wouldn’t risk it.

5. Clock     Why? – Not so much in Japan, but more significant in China, a clock suggests a ‘time limit’ and you don’t want that when you wish for a long lasting relationship such as business partnership or friendship.

For Get-Well Gift

6. Potted Plants     Why? – pot plants are rooted, in Japanese they are ”netsuku” [as in ‘neh-tsu-koo’] and  in Chinese characters it is written as根付く, and its homonym 寝付く means “bed-ridden” – obviously you don’t want to give such a message to the person you hope recovers.

7. Camellia, Poppy or Cyclamen     Why? – A flower of Camellia drapes or drops, and it connotes a head dropping; poppy blossoms are easy to break and scatter which provokes a negative image of a person falling apart; for Cyclamen, it is called ‘shikuramen’ (シクラメン) in Japanese and the first syllable of ‘shi’ (シ=死) [as in ‘she’] – once again – is associated with ‘death’ and ‘ku’ (ク=苦) [as in ‘koo’] – once again – is associated with ‘suffering.’

8. Non-Consumable Gifts     Why? – As the person you are visiting recovers and recuperates, you hope and wish that their illness will have exhausted, and not remain in the body of the person.  Therefore it is believed to be good to select things that can be used up or eaten up itself whilst in hospital, such as soap, fruit, tea or coffee etc.

For Celebrating Wedding

9. Scissors or Knives     Why? – Scissors or knives signify cutting – for example, “cut the ties,” whereas matrimony or a wedding symbolises unity between two people and two families, so it is considered inappropriate to give a tool to cut as a gift for that occasion.

10. China/Stoneware     Why? – China, porcelain, stoneware, glassware… they connote ‘breaking.’  Therefore, it is not considered ideal to choose as a gift, like scissors and knives.  Quite obvious, when you come to think of it, isn’t it?

11. Mirror     Why? – Again, the reason is similar to china/stoneware – it ‘breaks’ and ‘cracks.’  However, I would like to add a detail reason which is specific to mirrors.  It is often associated with the spiritual world or the other side of the world, so some people associate mirrors with souls or spirits.  For example, it is considered unlucky to set a mirror facing your body in bed as if the mirror steals your soul from your body.

For Housewarming

12. Lighter or Ash Tray     Why? – Lighters and ash trays are considered inappropriate as a gift for new home because it is associated with ‘fire.’   Things that may convey the meaning of ‘fire,’ ‘smoke’ and ‘tip (lean)’ – negative connotations in this context.

For People in a Senior Position or Older than you

13. Shoes or Boots     Why? – Shoes or boots are for the feet and therefore they are associated with the idea of ‘stomping’ and giving such things as a gift may be construed as “I am stomping over you (soon),” which is not a good message to send your bosses…

14. Belt     Why? – Giving your boss or someone who is high up in the hierarchy a belt may be construed as a message from you meaning “hey boss, you need to tighten up (you look flabby).”

15. Pens     Why? – Pens are typically chosen as a gift from a teacher to their students or from someone senior to their junior in Japan, therefore, if you do that the other way around it could be considered rude or even condescending.

Numbers: Good and Bad

3, 5 and 7 are generally considered good numbers specially for wedding in Japan, at weddings, a congratulatory gift of money is usually given and giving even numbers is considered bad luck, as they can be easily ‘divided.’ So, for example 30,000 yen (approx. 200 pound) – i.e. three 10,000 yen notes (ideally new notes for a brand-new start) – for a single person and 50,000 (approx. 300 pound) yen – five 10,000 yen notes – for a couple that are invited are largely accepted.

8 – In Chinese character, eight is 八 and the shape signifies (top to bottom) success, prosperity or wealth, as things that start narrow gradually broaden.

4 and 9 – The number 4 can be read in two ways as ‘yon’ and ‘shi’ in Japanese.  Also the number 9 can be read in two ways as ‘kyu’ and ‘ku.’  And then, as I mentioned a couple of times before, in Japanese the syllable of ‘shi’ (し=死) – has the same phonetic sound as ‘death’ and ‘ku’ (く=苦) – is likewise the same sound as ‘suffering.’  These sounds convey quite a negative and unfortunate meaning.  Oddly enough, for this very reason, many hospitals avoid using these numbers for patients’ room numbers or floor numbers i.e. there would be room number 101,102 and 103, but after 103, there wouldn’t be 104 but the next number would be 105 instead.


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