Top 5 Common Misconceptions I’ve Come Across in Japan

Almost every day I see some new ‘fact’ about Japan pop up on my social media from people living both inside and outside of the country. My own brother sent me a photo of a Japanese school kid with the caption, “Did you know that Japanese students don’t have tests or homework until the 4th grade? That’s because their entire education up until that point is focused on politeness and manners!”

I turned to my friend, who has three young children enrolled in various levels of Japanese schooling (and went through the education system in Japan themselves) and showed them the picture to confirm such a fact. Their response was: “Not true. Even the first graders have exams and homework. It doesn’t take four years to learn how to say ‘excuse me’ or ‘I’m sorry’.” I knew something about the ‘fact’ seemed off, but didn’t have the authority to bust it myself.

Fortunately, I do have a bit of authority on the next five misconceptions I’ve heard over the years, and as such would like to share them with others. No, I’m not getting on my high horse to tell people, “Ha ha! You thought you knew something but you were wrong! You fool!” I’m merely trying to clear up the most misconstrued ‘facts’ that people have told me about Japan or that I’ve heard/believed myself.

-Disclaimer-

Generally only those who choose to live in Japan for a lengthy period of time (at least 6 months or more) will come across the truths behind these misconceptions. I’ve had many friends come to visit for shorter stays that felt all of these misconceptions were 100% gospel and fact. Depending on where you live, work, and visit, you might also be inclined to believe them. Feel free to agree, disagree, or write in the comments below if you feel these are, indeed, facts.

Misconception #1: The people in Japan are so polite! They’re never noisy and are always respectful! You never get that anywhere else!

Alright, I get where this one stems from. One of the best parts about living in Japan is that the majority of people will leave you alone if you’re just minding your own business. There are, of course, a few people that will stop you and try and speak with you (in either English, Japanese, or a mixture of the two), but that number really depends on your location within the country.

Japanese people are taught to have a certain level of politeness in almost all aspects of life. You say you’re sorry when bumping into someone, excuse yourself from a room, apologize for entering a room even if you were expected to go there, thank your coworkers for their hard work every day before you leave the office, and so on. The language itself has varying levels of politeness, which can lead to offenses being taken if you speak too casually to someone who’s in a ‘higher’ position or standing than you are (read up on Japanese workplace culture here for more information on the subject).

A chart showing the proper angles of bowing in Japan for certain levels of politeness, from regular polite (0-44º), to very polite (45-89º), to extremely polite (90+º)

Even with all that ‘polite training’ – and possibly because of it – Japan is still rampant with one of the least polite forms of interaction: passive aggression. Imagine you were told never to be mean or rude to anyone, but someone was really pushing your buttons. What would you do? Well, many in Japan have found that silently resenting someone else and doing everything possible to ensure they fail or have a hard time is their way of getting back at a person.

For example, I had a coworker who had the misfortune of asking one too many questions at work. His team leader took this to mean that he was incompetent, and therefor useless. For the next three months, despite all of his attempts at asking to help with projects and deadlines, he sat at his desk and twiddled his thumbs while his team leader stopped giving him work and assignments. When the boss asked why everything was taking so long to complete, his team leader said, “I have to work on everything by myself because ((expat’s name)) doesn’t know how to do anything. Sorry for the delay.”

He didn’t last very long after that, though he had gotten away with doing nothing and getting paid for it.

See, the ‘polite’ thing to do would be for his team leader to ask if he needed more training, or needed to be moved to a different position, or possibly even be let go if he wasn’t a good fit for the job. Even if they decided to fire him, the company might have found a more suitable candidate who would understand their inner workings a bit better, and the expat could have found a better job that suited his own needs and allowed him to actually be productive at work.

Ask almost anyone who works in Japan and they’ll tell you the importance of being able to “read the air”, and understand what people around you are feeling but won’t say. Many expats get in trouble by going with what their employers and coworkers say instead of what they mean, imply, or refuse to say out loud. The best example of this is being told, “Ah, does your long hair ever bother you? I’m sure it gets to be quite hot during the summer,” instead of “Please get a haircut, you look unprofessional.”

On another note, the whole, “Japanese people are always so quiet!” is also something that gets thrown around a lot. In reality, Japanese people just value minding their own business. In America, it’s common practice to walk up to someone and strike up a conversation – regardless of whether either party felt comfortable doing so. In Japan, the majority of people just want to go about their day without unscheduled interactions or interruptions, though that also varies from city to city (Tokyo vs. Osaka, for example).

Misconception: All Japanese people are quiet and polite!

Truth: Japan can be quite noisy and very passive aggressive.

Misconception #2: Japan is so technologically advanced! Everything they do is like it’s straight out of a science fiction movie!

I’m not quite sure where this one stems from, but I myself believed it for a long time before living and working in Japan. Maybe it’s the fact that Japan was one of the the first countries to get waterproof phones and 4G, or maybe it’s their curiosity and fascination with robots (if you’re also fascinated with robots in Japan, they’ve got a dinner/show experience just for you!). Regardless, people always think that everything in Japan must be ridiculously advanced and way ahead of how any other country does things.

Oh, how wrong they are.

Almost everyone working in Japan for a Japanese company will at some point in time be forced to use a fax machine, email an excel that’s formatted like a Word document, and stamp their signature on multitudes of paper records and documents. Even in the IT world, computers are not used to their full ability in many Japanese companies, and it often drives expats crazy.

Instead of getting company memos in email form, many times you’ll have a bundle of papers clipped together with a small paper on top lists names of employees. There will also be spaces for a stamp from a person’s personal hanko (name stamp). At the end of the day that paper’s going to have more red rings than a ring toss at the county fair (assuming they use the standard red, yellow, blue rings that everyone knows and loves).

Imagine a bold, red circle with “Your Name Here” written inside it.

This is what a standard Japanese hanko looks like. Pretty high tech, eh?

One of the most taxing duties of working in a Japanese office is faxing a document that you printed out from your computer and stamped to send to another branch, company, or office that will then copy the fax and turn it into an online document, or sign with their own personal stamp and fax back to you to be shoved with a bunch of other faxes and filed away for later use.

There’s also the instances of lengthy email chains that are CC’d to the entire office but consist of short replies or confirmations that the email was received, resulting in hundreds of useless emails that hold no real information. Add in the attached excel files that need to be edited but CANNOT be sent back in anything but an excel file – despite the fact that making the sheet into a word or text document would be much better since the entire document is text-based and has no need to be made in excel in the first place – and you’ve got yourself a fun, productive day at the office.

I won’t lie, though, I can see the appeal of keeping a paper trail for everything in case a server goes down or someone accidentally deletes all the files, but if a fire is set to the building everything will be lost as well. Though it’s time consuming and a bit annoying, keeping both physical and digital records is probably the only way to protect a company’s information, even if a hefty amount of trees will certainly suffer for it.

In the end, getting the necessary documents signed, dated, and sent off takes at least twice as long in Japan as it does in many other countries. For those expats who come to Japan because they’ve heard so much about the technological advances, many are sorely disappointed.

Misconception: Japan is so technologically advanced! I bet they drive flying cars to work and have robots at all their meetings!

Truth: Fax machines, excel spreadsheets, offline/paper records and documents, and hanko reign supreme in the workplace.

Misconception #3: You don’t even have to know Japanese to live there – almost everyone can speak or understand English!

This one gets told to a lot of people before they move to live and work in Japan. I myself was told this very same thing, and honestly wanted to believe it. I had only learned a handful of phrases before arriving (the usual, “hello”, “goodbye”, “sorry”, “thank you”, “I do not consent to this”), and realized as soon as I landed that I should have studied a bit harder.

I’m not going to lie – you can get by living in Japan without knowing a lick of Japanese. It’s not impossible. It’s just really freaking hard. If you ever meet someone who has done this or is currently doing so, look at the people they hang around and you’ll see how they’re able to do it. Maybe expats who refuse, don’t have an interest, or are just too lazy to learn Japanese surround themselves with those who speak both English and Japanese and rely on them for almost everything.

If you live in one of the major cities or work in a foreign company in Japan, you might not have such a hard time getting by in life. Though, that’s not to say that you still won’t have to either rely on someone who knows Japanese for certain things like moving (which you can find more information about here for expats in Japan), opening a bank account, getting married, buying a car, and other important life events. Nine times out of ten there won’t be an “English Helpline” for you when you’re trying to get your water, gas, and electricity turned on in a new apartment or house (though recently they updated setting up your electricity to an online form, yay!).

Let’s not even get starting on how working within Japanese companies with natives goes when neither party can fully understand one another.

A man speaking to a woman who looks like she’s only half-understanding what he’s saying
I’m only getting about half of what you’re saying, but I’m too afraid to let you know that. Please don’t fire me. I don’t want to go back to my home country.

Even if the company you work for tells you that won’t need to know any Japanese for your job (such as those who come to Japan to teach English), any job that requires you to work side-by-side with Japanese coworkers will only get harder and harder to handle the less Japanese you know. Regardless of whether or not your staff speak and understand English, those that learn the native language will go much farther than those who do not.

In short, while it is entirely possible to get by without an proficiency in Japanese, the more of the language you know the easier you’ll find living in the country to be. It’s also true that the closer to a big city you live, the easier it is to have resources that will make life without Japanese a veritable breeze.

Misconception: English is the language of the world, so there’s no need to learn Japanese if you’re living in Japan.

Truth: Your life in Japan will go so much smoother if you buckle down and learn the language.

Misconception #4: There are no trash cans on the street because Japan is so clean! You’ll never see a single speck of trash anywhere! SO CLEAN!

This one gets thrown around so much online that it makes me crazy. “Japan is so clean!” “Everyone is so respectful of throwing away their own trash that they don’t even have trashcans anywhere!” “People are so considerate there! I’ve NEVER seen a single piece of trash on the ground, ever!”

Please. Please stop. Firstly, there are relatively no trash cans on the streets because of the Sarin Gas Attack of 1995 in the Tokyo Subway. The main function of not having small bomb-hiding tins everywhere is to prevent another mass terrorist attack. There’s also speculation that the Japanese government believes that people will be more responsible and litter less if there are less opportunities to throw away their trash… That one I’m not sure about, so let’s keep a healthy dose of skepticism for that one.

I can tell you from walking around my own city – which is pretty well populated and not rural by any means – that people are people and litter happens everywhere. I’m often tempted to bring a trash stick with me on my walks to clean up the 7/11 food containers, empty bottles, and snack packages I see on a daily basis. To say that Japan is “spotless” is a bit much. By American standards it’s pretty clean, but it’s not completely void of all trash.

Even if the trash isn’t on the ground, you can find misplaced refuse in quite a few places. There are small bins next to drink vending machines dedicated for bottles and cans, yet there will almost always be some other type of trash stuffed into them. Many places in Japan have signs in their restrooms that advise visitors to take their trash home with them or find an appropriate place to dispose of them outside because people try to leave them in the bathroom trash receptacles.

For those who aren’t aware, Japan has some pretty strict laws regarding the separation of trash. There’s a category for almost every type of trash imaginable: from burnable to non-burnable to plastic to recyclable to paper to cans to bottles to clothes to oversized items and more. Oftentimes expats (and even natives) get so fed up with the rigid system that they just throw everything into burnable or non-burnable designated bags and hope their overfilled bags of wrongly sorted trash aren’t traced back to their premises.

I won’t even go into how many times I’ve seen a filled bag of trash sitting in the designated trash pickup area on trash day (did I mention there are separate, specific bags you have to use for each type of trash?) with a large note across the front saying “Please take back, this isn’t the right trash for this bag.” Many refuse to take responsibility for their actions, and if there’s anything remotely edible in the bag an animal is likely to come along and rip it open, thus depositing the contents all over the ground. Many prefectures and cities actually advise residents on proper trash disposal to try and prevent crows from getting at them, as seen here.

So yeah. Japan can get pretty trashy.

Misconception: Japan is ridiculously clean because the people love and respect their country so much!

Truth: Even if it’s not to the same degree as other countries, cities, or towns, there is still trash in Japan, no matter how much people love their country.

Misconception #5: People should follow Japan’s example in the workplace! They work so hard they fall asleep at their desks! Now THAT’S dedication to a company!

Oh boy. This is one I’m not proud to say I totally and completely fell for before I came to Japan. I mean, as the story goes, bosses in Japan are actually happy to see their employees asleep at their desk because it means that they’re literally working themselves to the point of exhaustion. Right? Eh, not really.

((Seriously, though, I covered a lot of this in another blog you can find here, but read on if you want the short version.))

The work dynamic in Japan is a bit hard to understand, even for those currently working for a Japanese company. For one thing, employees are made to believe that leaving work before their boss is improper and shows that they’re not dedicated to the company. For those with ‘no shame’ who have to or simply want to leave early, you still have to apologize to everyone present in the office when you leave by saying to them, “お先に失礼します” which carries the weight of “I’m sorry I’m leaving before you”.

So if leaving early is frowned upon, how late are people really staying? Well, many ‘salarymen’ type positions have employees at the office (whether or not that means they’re productive and working or simply sleeping or doing other things to pass the time) from 7:00 – 22:00 (7am to 10pm), or some variation of that timeframe. Sixteen hours is said to be the norm, though some get away with less and some are forced to do more.

A man sleeps on a park bench during his lunch break.
“Just sleeping my day away so I can stay at work longer and never see my family.”

Those working in Japan quickly realize that time spent at the office is all for show. If you can get your work done in a few hours, you have the rest of the day to browse the internet, sleep, eat, goof off, or do whatever you want until you’re clear to leave.

Another aspect people outside of Japan fail to realize is the tradition of the 飲み会, pronounced ‘no-mi-kai’, which literally means drinking party. After a long, hard, grueling day of ‘work’, employees and their bosses head over to the nearest bar and drink the remaining hours of the day away. Then they go home, catch a few hours of sleep, and show up to work again.

Yes, you read right; after a 16-hour shift, employees and their boss will go drinking (and hopefully eat something as well), go home or grab a capsule hotel to rest at for a few hours, then show up to work to do it all over again. A drinking part isn’t just a Friday or Saturday event – it can happen any day of the week, and is seen as a duty or traditional aspect of the work life in Japan.

One of the most troubling issues with Japan’s work ethic is that the families of those who go through with having long workdays rarely have time to see or interact with them. Children grow up barely knowing their mother, father, or guardian because their parents feel obligated to work overtime – in many cases without compensation – to keep their standing in the company and prove that they’re a loyal, dedicated employee.

Thankfully, this outdated tradition is slowly changing for the better as time goes on and new generations begin to question such archaic and borderline barbaric customs, but it is still quite prevalent in Japan at this time.

Misconception: Japanese people are the hardest workers in the world! That’s why they’re always tired!

Truth: Long hours at work do not equate to time spent being productive.

Conclusion

Look, I love living in Japan, but that’s mainly because I didn’t come into the country with many expectations. As such, I didn’t have a lot of expectations turn into misconceptions that would in turn lead to resentment against the Japan I thought I knew. I’ve seen countless short-term expats lose that ‘Japan is the Greatest!’ mentality after living in the country for a few months, and I wouldn’t wish that upon anyone.

In the same vein, I can see someone who was born and raised in Japan moving to America with similarly wrong expectations that are later found out to be misconceptions. “But I thought everyone got to own a gun! And that everyone had so much freedom that they didn’t know what to even do with it all! Also, why are all my health bills so high?”

It’s the ‘grass is greener’ mentality that gets expats into trouble during the adjustment period. Don’t believe everything you read, see on TV, or watch online. Even if things are one way in a select city that’s under extreme scrutiny from the rest of the world (looking at you, Tokyo), that doesn’t mean you’ll have the same experience when you live and work in some rural prefecture that has a population of 3 other expats.

With the rise of easily obtainable and consumed social media, ‘facts’ are being spread around the internet without enough fact checking in place to keep the misconceptions at bay. We’ve all fallen prey to this new normality (admit it, you’ve shown your friend a ‘fact’ on the internet before without knowing if it was true or not!), and likely will again in the future. It’s just a part of living in a digital world that we have to accept.

Take it with a grain of salt, take your time getting to know a country, and take care not to overwhelm yourself when your expectations fall short or are crushed into a million little pieces.

Any misconceptions you think should have made the list? Do you have any misconceptions about other countries that you’d like to share? Maybe we all have a thing or two to learn about this crazy world we live in! Comment below and share your knowledge, yeah?

Happy reading, writing, living, and working!

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