Cultural Differences Between the USA and Japan
Japan is often considered to be more culturally "western" than other Asian countries. When it's compared to the United States there are certainly a lot of similarities, but Japan and the U.S. also have many cultural differences. While a group of people cannot be generalized as a whole, and culture in any country can vary from region to region, here are fifteen cultural differences that typically stick out to American expatriates in Japan.
15 Cultural Differences Between Japan and America
- Religious practices differ.
- Japanese culture is more formal than American culture.
- Political participation is less intense in Japan.
- America has diverse racial demographics and Japan is predominantly Japanese.
- Japanese people bow and Americans shake hands.
- Japanese adults are more likely to live with their parents than American adults.
- Tipping is not practiced in Japan.
- Space is scarce in Japan.
- Japanese communication is subtle, whereas Americans tend to be blunt.
- Japanese gender roles are strict.
- Social hierarchy is important in Japan.
- Japan's culture is collectivist and America's is individualistic.
- Eating in public can be considered impolite.
- Train etiquette is strict in Japan.
- Cash is not exchanged by hand.
1. Religious Practices Differ
The vast majority of Japanese people identify as Shinto, Buddhist, or both at the same time. Though Christian missionaries have been present in Japan for hundreds of years, their presence has had little effect on Japan's religious identity and philosophy. Therefore, issues that are the basis of debates in the Abrahamic faiths, such as gay marriage or teaching creationism in schools, lack a religious foundation in Japan. In Japan, Shinto and Buddhist practices are predominantly limited to traditions, celebrations, and superstitions more than strong spiritual beliefs. For example, in America, a politician's religious affiliation may become the cause of heavy debate, but there are few such issues in Japan.
2. Japanese People Are More Formal Than Americans
This generalization depends on which region of Japan you are referring to, but overall Japan, especially Tokyo, is known for being socially colder than most areas of the United States. People tend to stand a relatively far distance apart when speaking, and last names with honorifics are used when people speak to or about one another. An example of this can be seen in different approaches to customer service. In America, ideal customer service is usually warm and friendly. In Japan, it is formal and unobtrusive. Waiters don't usually stop by tables to ask customers how the food is or what their weekend plans are, and strangers won't often chat while waiting for the bus. Physically touching others in public is also less common in Japan than it is in America.
3. Japanese People Are Nationalistic, But Overall Not Very Political
Politicians in Japan have a shockingly low approval rate. Politicians are quick to resign after making mistakes, which is why Japan has switched its prime ministers almost once a year since 2005. Japan has a parliament system with many parties, and politicians don't win elections with a majority vote. In fact, Japanese people have a notoriously low voter turnout rate. On the other hand, Japanese people tend to have a lot of love for their country, and they celebrate their unique history, language, and culture in a way that's not dissimilar to Americans.
4. America Is Made Up of People From Many Different Countries, Whereas Japan Is Predominantly Japanese
The population of Japan is about 98% ethnic Japanese, and the biggest minority groups are Korean and Chinese people. Most Japanese citizens have an identical ethnic and national identity, therefore seeing people who don't appear to be of East Asian descent can lead to instant assumptions. This can affect society in the sense that because Japanese people view their culture as homogeneous, it is expected that everyone understands the traditions and rules of society.
5. Japanese People Bow
It is well known that many Asian countries utilize bowing instead of shaking hands, but Japanese people bow in more situations than just greetings. Bowing can be done while apologizing or expressing gratitude. People might bow to a deep 45 degree angle in business or professional environments, but most bows are just a casual bob of the head and slight incline of the back. Despite the prevalent importance of bowing in Japan, Japanese people are well aware of the fact that foreigners usually shake hands, and they might readily offer their hands in greeting instead of bowing.
6. Japanese People Will Often Live With Their Parents Until They Get Married
In Japan there is less of a social stigma surrounding an unmarried person living with their parents during or after college. In fact, it isn't unheard of for newlyweds to live with one partner's parents until they can find a place of their own. In the U.S. people tend to move out of their parents' homes unless they're financially or culturally discouraged from doing so.
7. There Is No tipping in Japan
Tipping is not practiced at establishments in Japan. It can even be insulting to tip because doing so is considered to be an affront to an employee's salary. If you leave a few bills on the table after eating out, prepare to have the waiter run after you with your "forgotten" item. In America, tips are meant to show appreciation for good service. Considering that many service jobs in the U.S. pay minimum wage or less, tipping has become a necessity in order for waiters and waitresses to survive.
8. Space in Japan Is More Precious
Because Japan is an island country that's only about the size of California, and much of the land it has is mountainous terrain, its available land is precious and often expensive. Apartments and houses are usually small, and yards are often tiny if they exist at all. Still, Japanese people have learned to adapt in ways to maximize space, but it can still be shocking for an American who might take space for granted.
9. Americans Tend to Be More Direct and Blunt, Whereas Japanese People Are More Subtle
Being too direct in Japan can be considered rude. This can be seen in body language too. People in the U.S. are taught to look directly in someone's eyes when speaking or listening to show that they are actively participating in the conversation. In Japan, extended eye contact can be uncomfortable between people who aren't close, and eyes are often averted. Japanese people also tend to be more reserved than Americans, and they share less personal or sensitive information, even with close friends.
10. Gender Roles Are Strict
In 2012, Japan received an embarrassing rank in the Global Gender Gap Report, which measured women's equality in various countries. America received the 22nd place and Japan received the 101st spot. There are very few female politicians and CEOs in Japan. When women join companies, they are often expected to quit when they get married to become housewives and stay-at-home mothers. The concept of masculinity can also be very strict, though among youth culture—typically university-aged people or younger—there is some gender androgyny celebrated in fashion, appearances, and theatrical roles.
11. Social Hierarchy Is Important in Japan
The junior/senior relationship is very important in Japan. An employee who is younger and probably hasn't worked at a company as long as his older coworker will be a "junior" to the "senior," more experienced employee. It is the same for students, especially in school clubs. In theory, the upperclassman serves as a mentor for the underclassmen, and it is the junior's duty to help out and support the senior members of the group. These roles aren't non-existent in America, but roles are often based on personal accomplishments, and they aren't always respected as a rule either.
12. Japan Is a Collectivist Culture, Whereas the United States Is More Individualistic
Japanese culture places importance on groups and communities. Satisfaction and pride are meant to be found within the group you belong to. In the United States, people tend to find satisfaction in their own accomplishments, and people tend to focus on their own aspirations. An example of this can be observed in Japanese business culture. In Japan employees tend to work for one company for their entire lives. Company loyalty is valued, and promotions are often given on the basis of seniority. In Japan, this can also influence the ways that people live in and contribute to society. In America, people focus on their careers independent from the companies they work for, and they will often change companies a number of times throughout their professional lives. Promotions are supposed to be given on the basis of merit in the U.S.
13. Eating in Public
In the U.S. people are often seen eating snacks or small meals while traveling on public transit, during their commute, while shopping, or while they run errands. In Japan, people are less likely to eat while strolling about. People in Japan usually eat while sitting in restaurants, cafes, or at their own kitchen tables. Eating on the go can be messy and food odors in places that are not designated for eating can be unpleasant to others. Even though people in Japan occasionally eat on the go, they don't do it often.
14. Train Etiquette
In the U.S., people tend to do whatever they want while riding trains or buses. People are often observed eating snacks, talking on their phones, listening to music (with or without headphones,) texting, playing mobile games, sleeping, working, dancing, etc. In Japan most people adhere to social etiquette that discourages disruptive activities on trains and buses. People typically silence their phones while they're utilizing public transportation, and they don't usually answer phone calls. Because sexual harassment has been a widespread issue on Japanese trains, many rush hour routes offer cars that are solely for female commuters so they won't be at risk of groping or harassment.
15. Money Exchanges While Shopping
When shopping in Japan, people typically pay for items with cash and they place their cash in a tray beside the register for the salesperson to pick up, count, and process. The salesperson will place change in the tray for the customer to pick up after the transaction is complete. In America, shoppers hand money directly to the salesperson and it can be considered rude for someone to place money on the counter rather than hand it directly to a person.
You Might Experience Culture Shock When Traveling Between Japan and America
Because there are a lot of cultural differences between Japan and the United States, people can experience culture shock when traveling between the two countries. Culture shock is a feeling of discomfort or disorientation that one experiences when they're in an unfamiliar environment. A good way to prepare for and combat culture shock is to do lots of research prior to traveling. Learn about the specific places that you will visit when you're traveling, study local customs, and try to physically or emotionally prepare for your new environment as much as possible. Culture shock is less overwhelming when a person prepares for it.
- Hausmann R., Tyson L.D., Zahidi S. (2012.) The Global Gender Gap Report. World Economic Forum, 8-9. Retrieved on November 9th, 2018.
- Etiquette in Japan. Updated November 20th, 2018. Retrieved from Wikipedia.com.
- Guide to Japan: Etiquette, Customs, Culture, & Business. Kwintessential.co.uk. Retrieved on November 10th, 2018.