4 Hard-to-Break Habits You Might Pick Up in Japan

  • I’ve lived in Japan for about 3 years. During returns home to the United States, I always find myself doing or wanting to do certain things that, while commonplace in Japan, just aren’t done where I’m from. I usually catch myself in time, but they have led to some rather humorous (and awkward) moments. The following are 4 of the biggest.

    1. Bowing

    This is done so often that it has become second nature to me. Sometimes I think I do it more often than Japanese people. It is a great nonverbal tool to communicate politeness, something which is always useful in bridging language barriers. When I’m back in the States, instead of a typical hand wave, I find myself bowing to people as I cross the street, when someone presents me with something, or even when I run across an acquaintance. I have heard the same thing happen with other friends who have returned to their home countries from Japan, and I don’t think it`s a habit I will ever fully break.

    2. Saying “un un” while listening to someone speak

    This is usually accompanied by a head nod for each “un” (うん). Saying this in Japan is a way of acknowledging what the other person is saying, kind of like “uh-huh” in English. It’s a bit strange for some of my relatives to catch me doing it at home, however, but they usually understand why. If what the person says happens to be really interesting or surprising, I might even add a “sou?!” (そう?!) for “really?!”

    3. Wanting to bag your own groceries

    In grocery stores in Japan, there are no baggers. Instead, purchased items are placed in a basket, along with a bag or bags if needed, and the customer goes to a designated area to bag their purchased items. It makes for a rather efficient system and lines are rarely long. In the US, I have to resist the urge to take my purchases and put them in bags myself, as I`m afraid it might be considered rude. It’s interesting how small cultural differences such as this can make a person sometimes feel out of place.

    4. Clapping your hands and saying “itadakimasu!” before a meal

    “Itadakimasu” (いただきます) can roughly be translated to “I humbly receive,” and it is a way to show your appreciation for a meal, not only to those involved in preparing and serving the meal, but to the plants and, if applicable, animals, who gave up their lives for the meal. Putting your hands into a kind of praying position is also a polite gesture. When in the States, I still almost always put up my hands before digging in, and some of my friends and family members have gotten used to me saying “itadakimasu.” It’s only among strangers that I will consciously make myself say something else, such as “let`s eat!”

    This is just a small list of some Japanese mannerisms that have stuck with me. If you find yourself living in Japan, what kind of mannerisms do you think you’ll pick up? Or if you already do live in Japan, what habits have been hard for you to break when you visit home?