New article from iloho is now up. Check it out at http://blog.iloho.com/older/2009/10/7/travel_tips_10_things_you/.
When you are travelling in Japan follow these simple guidelines to ensure that cultural misunderstandings (or worse) do not occur.
10) Misuse Your Shoes
Thresholds at businesses and all homes and apartments in Japan have a convenient place for you to store your shoes and don borrowed slippers for your journey. However, did you know you should never wear slippers on tatami mats? It's also a huge cultural faux-pas to come out of the bathroom still wearing toilet slippers, as they've been rubbing on dirty linoleum (although this even slips Japanese minds from time to time).
9) Bathe in the Bathtub
The bathing culture in Japan is unparalleled. Even if I soak in a mineral pool in the backwoods of New Zealand, nothing will make me feel more cleansed inside and out than a soak in a traditional Japanese hot spring resort. Ignoring the fact the water is still hotter and contains more minerals than most hot pools abroad, Japanese bathing etiquette dictates one should shower thoroughly before entering the steaming bath; if you were to do otherwise in Japanese homes (as a guest you would be given the honour of bathing first) the family would have to completely drain the tub, clean out the ring, and refill. You'd probably just be kicked out if you brought soap and shampoo into the pool at a public bathhouse.
8) Fumble with Chopsticks
You don't have to be able to pick up an individual grain of rice to use chopsticks properly. Rather, just be aware that there are a few things for which they were not meant to be used. First, even if you're sharing dishes with a group, do not pass food from one set of chopsticks to another, as this is considered in bad taste. Second, when not using them, set your chopsticks across your plate or bowl as you would a knife; poking them out of your rice resembles two sticks of incense commonly used for a certain death ceremony... and why would you want to be reminded of that over a fine dinner?
7) Grope on a Train
Obviously this isn't a mere misunderstanding of cultures if such an act were to occur, but even when visiting Japan and having nothing but pure intentions, one should be aware of the dangers. Women (and even men) have been fondled on crowded trains and often cannot trace the hands back to their owners. This has lead to women-only subway cars during peak travel times, and the police giving advice to young girls: seize the arm of your attacker and don't let go until security sees his face. I only mention this because if you're a foreigner riding a train in the land of the rising sun who knows absolutely no Japanese, and when disembarking you find a man or woman screaming "shijou!" or "chikan!", respectively (the terms for female and male perverts), you're essentially at the mercy of one individual who may have mistaken your desire to get a little bit of room on the car as blatant groping.
6) Choose the Wrong Seat
There's a somewhat antiquated custom when it comes to eating out in groups. If you're with some business colleagues, it's better for a junior member (in terms of hierarchy, not age) to take the seat closest to the doorway or access point, the senior member the farthest away. The belief is that should an attack occur, the least experienced (thus the least valuable) will be killed first, giving the others time to mobilize and protect the higher-ups.
5) Show Strong Emotions
One of the most common mistakes a foreigner makes upon entering the Japanese business world is to openly express his frustration when the unexpected comes along... and it always comes along. Showing strong emotions like anger is a social death sentence in Japan; the only time someone might get away with it would be if he were seriously inebriated, or at least making the effort to get there. Tears, especially those of happiness, can be forgiven (even from men), but take care to keep your temper in check.
4) Blow Your Nose
Even out on the street when it's sub-zero degree weather, blowing your nose in Japan is probably one of the rudest things you can do, even more so if you're talking with someone face-to-face and take a moment to pull out your handkerchief. It's the equivalent of asking someone to watch you use the toilet.
This is a good policy for conversations around the world, but it really hits home in Japan. Whereas in the States or other countries one might dismiss a tired expression with a certain nonchalance or a chuckle (e.g. "crazy night on the town?"), in Japan you might as well slap your superior in the face to completely prove your desire not to listen.
2) When Listening...
I had an interview with an English school in Akita Prefecture not too long ago. As I was listening to the manager speak via Skype, I realised how out of practice I was at listening by Japanese standards. He spoke for only a few seconds at a time, each time taking my silence as an indication that the call must have been disconnected. Why? Because I failed to provide the appropriate guttural sounds: when speaking one-on-one with someone in Japan (group meetings can be an exception), it's best to utter a few words every now and again to show you still have the speaker's attention. A simple hai (yes), or so des ne (ah, I see) can work wonders.
1) Respect Yourself
Modesty is a virtue. I cannot count the number of times as an English teacher I gave high praise to certain young Japanese students, only to have their parents contradict me by saying something like "yes, but she's terrible studying at home" or "no, you must be mistaken". Disregarding or refusing complements in Japan is the only way to accept them graciously:
Me: Excuse me, but could you tell me the way to the nearest train station?
Japanese: Ooohhh! Your Japanese is so skillful!
Me: No, no, it's nothing really.
By claiming you have no skills or any life experience exceeding that of another, you in fact raise their impression of you. If I were to refer to myself as "Turner-san" or respond to such praise of my language skills with "Thank you very much! I have been diligently studying for nine months!", then I might be forgiven as an ignorant foreigner... but more likely marked as arrogant.