Culture Shock

Culture Shock: using Japanese toilets

Culture shock can be very frustrating and embarrassing. Many people know that you must take your shoes off when you enter a house or an apartment in Japan. It is also well known that you should not leave chop sticks standing vertically in your rice bowl (unless you are making an offering to the dead). However, there are a lot of other cultural faux pas and behaviors that are not well known, but very important, especially if you are going to be in Japan for an extended period of time. There are also a lot of customs, behaviors, events and celebrations that you might not be aware of. Not all cultures share the same value systems, but if you are going to live in Japan, you should learn about Japanese culture and values. Have an open mind. If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for you.

National Holidays

There are fifteen national holidays in Japan. National holidays are usually observed by banks and public schools. Christmas is not a national holiday. It can be depressing and frustrating to have to work on Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving. This only compounds the culture shock. However, many restaurants and bars for foreigners will have events for non-Japanese holidays. There are a lot of Japanese national holidays, festivals and events in Japan that you can enjoy, especially during Golden Week and Obon. Golden Week is a week with several national holidays from April 29 to May 5. Although not a national holiday, many Japanese take their summer vacations during Obon.

National holidays are not always observed by all companies or industries. Unfortunately, many companies require employees to work excessive amounts of hours. People in Japan will often work on weekends and on national holidays. Just because it is a national holidays, does not mean you will not have to work. It all depends on the company and industry that you are working for.

Here is a list of national holidays in Japan:

  1. New Year's Day: January 1

  2. Coming of Age Day: Second Monday of January

  3. Foundation Day: January 11

  4. Vernal Equinox

  5. Showa Day: April 29 *Start of Golden Week.

  6. Constitution Day: May 3

  7. Greenery Day: May 4

  8. Children's Day: May 5 *End of Golden Week

  9. Marine Day: Third Monday of July

  10. Respect the Elderly Day: Third Monday of September

  11. Autumnal Equinox

  12. Sports Day: Second Monday of October

  13. Culture Day: November 3

  14. Labor Day: November 23

  15. Emperor's Birthday: December 23 *Changes for each Emperor.

Festivals & Events

There are a lot of fun festivals and events all over Japan all throughout the year. Each localilty in Japan has a long history and therefore each area has its own unique traditional festivals called matsuri. Festivals often include parades, dancing or special activities. They usually have food booths with takoyaki, yakisoba, castella, kara-age, candy apples, and snow cones. There are also game booths with prizes. There are carnival-like games such as shooting darts or throwing bean bags and goldfish catching. Festivals are a fun and intrinsic part of Japanese culture.

Besides Japanese festivals, a few western traditions are also celebrated. However, customs might not be what you expect. For example, Christmas is a big event in Japan. Many places decorate stores, streets and buildings with Christmas lights or illumination as the Japanese call it. On Christmas Eve many people have a chicken dinner and have Christmas cake. Kentucky Fried Chicken is wildly popular for Christmas dinner. It is to the extent that one must pre-order the Christmas chicken dinner package from KFC well in advance. Young couples often go on a romantic date on Christmas Eve. On Christmas morning, children wake up to one present by their bed or futon. Christmas is not really a family holiday in Japan. New Year's is the big family holiday, so the holiday season can be confusing and lonely for foreigners living in Japan.

Here is a list of a few events in Japan:

New Year's Eve is spent enjoying Kohaku, sake, and mikan with the family.

  • New Year's Eve is often celebrated by watching TV with the family. Kohaku, a music competition by famous artists, is a very popular show on New Year's Eve. After midnight many people go to a shinto shrine to pray. The first visit of the year to a shrine is called hatsumode. Buddhist temples will ring giant bells 108 times.

  • New Year's Day is celebrated by eating Osechi and spending time with the family. Children are given money, Otoshidama, for New Years. New Years is the most important holiday in Japan. The start of a new year is a big deal all throughout asia.

  • Setsubun is celebrated on Febuary 3. Beans are thrown at demon-like oni monsters while saying, "Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!" or "Demons out! Good luck in!"

  • Valentine's Day is not what you think it is. On Valentine's Day, women give men chocolate. Men do nothing. Women will often give chocolate to male co-workers as a sort of duty. This is called giri-choco.

  • White Day is on March 14 and acts as Valentine's Day's counterpart. On White Day, men who recieved chocolate from a woman on Valentine's Day may reciprocate by giving her cookies.

  • Tanabata or the Festival of the Stars is usually held on July 7. Bamboo branched are decorated with colorful tags of paper with wishes written on them. There's a legend that the two stars, Altair and Antares, are lovers seperated by the Milky Way and can only meet on this day.

  • Obon is a time to celebrate and worship ones ancestors. Many Japanese take their summer vacations during the Obon season. Many families also vist their famliy grave during Obon. In Japan graves are like a large stone box, like a giant urn, containing the ashes of their ancestors. It is custom to visit the family grave, clean it and pray, often during Obon or on the equinoxes.

  • Halloween is slowly gaining popularity in Japan. Many stores stock up on Halloween candy and costumes, but there is no trick-or-treating. Bars, restaurants and dance clubs that cater to foreigners often have costume parties and costume competitions.

  • Christmas, as stated above, is not a family holiday. Young couples go on dates on Christmas Eve. Many families have a chicken dinner with Christmas cake on Christmas Eve. Children usually get just one present placed by their bed or futon when they are sleeping. Christmas is not a national holiday.

Work Culture

Business in Japan can be frustrating for westerners. In Japan it is considered very rude to directly say, “No.” If you have given a business offer and the response is, “That might be difficult,” or “Let us think about it,” it probably means, “No.” Business meetings can also be confusing for westerners. A lot goes on behind the scenes long before a plan or proposal is presented at a meeting. Usually the employee with the plan or proposal will go out drinking with co-workers and superiors to get their input and get approval of the plan or proposal before it’s even presented at a meeting. The business meeting is a formality and it would look really bad to have your idea shot down at a business meeting in front of your peers and superiors. Getting plans pre-approved saves face and honor. In Japanese culture appearance is very important. In Japan it could be said that if things don’t look good on the outside, something must be wrong inside as well.

In Japan there are several job statuses: regular employees, civil servants, contract employees, dispatch employees and part-time workers. Regular employees and civil servants often enjoy life-long employment. However, global competition and unstable economic conditions are forcing an end to the traditional stable life-long employment system with downsizing and company bankruptcy. Promotions are determined by various factors such as tenure, skill and loyalty to the company. Loyalty to the company means putting in serious hours and going the extra mile, all without showing up your superiors. Going out to dinner and drinking with fellow employees and clients is very common. Companies often want employees to have a close sense of camaraderie. Regular employees and civil servants also usually get paid by a monthly salary no matter how well they work. They get bi-annual bonuses in summer and winter. Contract employees, dispatch workers and part-time workers may have some, but not all of these benefits.

Making Friends

Moving to a new country can be very lonely. So making friends is important. Japanese people tend to be shy which can make making friends in Japan a little difficult. They are also often embarassed about not being able to speak English. However, they are usually very curious about foreigners. Many Japanese people want to make friends with people from different cultural backgrounds. Don't be shy. Make the first move. If you smile and say, "Konnichiwa!" they will usually be delighted to talk to you. Co-workers often go out for dinner and drinks after work. That's a great chance to make friends and built a sense of commaderie among your peers. Another good way to make friends in Japan is to become a regular customer at a cafe, restaurant or bar. The staff and other regular customers can easily get to know you and become your friends. Be social and have fun.


Japanese family dynamics can be different as well. From the outside, most families take on the stereotypical form where the father works and the mother takes care of the children. Internally there is a lot going on. Husbands have a lot of regard for their company and often spend twelve to fourteen hours a day at work. They also work on weekends. This means the father is rarely at home. In some families, the wife manages all the money. Mothers have a lot of control over their children and often have a strong influence over their children even while they are adults. Children often live with their parents until they are married. It is not uncommon for single adults in their thirties or forties to live with their parents. This causes a lack of privacy, especially when are dating, which is why Japan has love hotels. Love hotels are a unique and intrisic part of Japanese culture. Grandparents also often live with their children until they are no longer able to do so. In some families, three or four generations of a family will live together under one roof. Like the western world, the divorce rate is climbing and the number of single mothers is also increasing. Fathers are also sometimes transferred by their company to a distant location and live alone, away from their families. The birth rate is decreasing. So the the Japanese population as a whole is decreasing as well. Tradition is in conflict with modern values and so family dynamics are changing rapidly.


Most toilets are in a separate room from the shower and bathtub. The shower is usually right next to the bathtub, but not in the bathtub. Most Japanese bathe at night. Everyone in the household uses the same bath water. Do not drain the bath tub unless you are the last person to bathe. First you shower, soap up, and rinse off. Clean and rinse yourself well. Then get in the bath tub and soak. The bath water is usually very hot and is meant for soaking and relaxing in. It is not uncommon for children up to ten years or older to bathe with their parents. It is a normal aspect of Japanese culture.

There are also public baths and hot springs. The showering and bathing areas are usually seperated by gender. Friends and families often go to public baths and hot springs to relax. It may be embarrassing for some westerners, but keep in mind that group bathing and nudity are not sexual in these situtations. Another thing to note is that if you have a tattoo you might not be allowed to use a public bath or hot spring because tattoos are associated with the Japanese mafia or yakuza. If you are ever in a situation where you go to a public bath or hot spring, handle it with maturity and respect for their culture.

Toilets in Japan

Most places in Japan have western style toilets, but you may find yourself in situations where you have to use a Japanese style toilet or a high-tech super toilet. Japanese style toilets or "squatters" strike fear in the hearts of many westerners. It’s embarrassing to ask someone how to use a toilet and it’s embarrassing for Japanese people to be asked to toilet train an adult from another country. They are not hard to use. If it's good enough for them, it's good enough for you.

Japanese style toilets are long and oval shaped, and they usually have a small half-dome at one end. First stand over the toilet facing the half-dome. Second lower your pants and underwear to your knees or ankles. Third squat and do your business. Japanese tend to squat with their feet flat on the ground. It takes a while to get used to. Finally wipe, pull your pants up, flush and you’re done. Make sure your bottom does not hang out beyond the toilet. The squatting is hard on the thighs and it may cause sore muscles if you squat for a long time. It’s also easy to lose your balance. Some people hold on to the toilet piping to keep their balance. Some restrooms may have special slippers for the toilet. Be careful as it is easy for the slipper to fall off into the toilet when you are stepping over the toilet or flushing it. Japanese style toilets are not hard to use.

Places that have western toilets may have super high-tech toilets that just haven’t caught on in western countries. They have heating, bottom-sprays, bidets, and some even play music to cover up embarrasing sounds. Non-Japanese may find this strange, but they are comfortable and hygienic. The bottom-spray button usually has a picture of a bottom and has “おしり” written on it. The bidet button is often pink with a picture of a girl sitting on a toilet and has “ビデ” written on it. There are also other dials and buttons for adjusting spray pressure and heat. Although most have a typical handle for flushing some have a flush button that has “流れ” written on it. There also might be a flush volume control. To use a large amount of water use the “大” control, or for a small amount of water use “小”. Usually you can just ignore all the extra features and use it like a typical western toilet. When in doubt, don’t press any buttons.

There are a few more things to know about restroom culture in Japan. You should always carry a handkerchief. Many public restrooms do not have paper towels to dry your hands. Handkerchiefs are not for blowing your nose. They are for drying your hands. Some train station restrooms also don’t have toilet paper in the stalls. In these cases there are usually toilet paper vending machines by the entrance of the restroom.