20 Things You Might Not Know About Japan

When someone mentions Japan, several things might come to mind. Maybe the word makes you think of zipping past the majestic Mount Fuji in a futuristic-looking bullet train, or fresh sushi and steaming bowls of ramen served up by some of the world’s best chefs. Or maybe you start thinking about Japan’s fascinating history and imagine fierce samurai warriors and sophisticated geisha. And while all these things are indeed part of past and present Japan, this magical country holds a lot of surprising facts that aren’t commonly known unless you dig a bit deeper - read on to learn about some of them.

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1. Office Naps Aren’t Frowned Upon

Sleeping on the job will generally not be well received by managers in offices around the world, and you’d probably imagine it to be the same in Japan, a country known for its long working hours and considerable amounts of overtime.

However, if you work at a traditional Japanese company, chances are that you will hear alarm clocks going off every now and then as your colleagues take naps at their desks during lunch breaks and evening overtime sessions. This will not be seen as something negative, but rather as the result of the employee’s hard work and extreme dedication to the workplace.

2. Japan Has More Than One Alphabet

Many foreigners struggle to learn Japanese, and this is partly due to the fact that Japan has three different alphabets - four, if you also count romaji, the romanization to Latin letters.

The history of the Japanese alphabets is long and fascinating, but the kanji alphabet was imported from China and in the beginning only used by men. The katakana alphabet was used to aid the reading of the Chinese characters. Women - who didn’t have access to formal education - would instead use the hiragana alphabet.

Today kanji, hiragana, and katakana are all used together in everyday Japanese writing.

3. Gambling Is (Almost) Illegal

Gambling is illegal in Japan, and casinos and gambling on overseas betting sites are completely banned. But if you have ever been to Japan, you have probably noticed the ubiquitous pachinko parlors: loud, bright entertainment establishments where people spend hours in front of pachinko, a type of slot machine or arcade game.

Pachinko is not considered gambling because of their unique prize system: prizes often consist of small, everyday items like pens, badges, or cigarettes which can then be exchanged for money at a different shop which is - on paper - not affiliated with the pachinko parlor. There are a few other exceptions as well, like betting on certain horse races, motorsports, and football matches.

4. Christmas and New Year Traditions Might Be Very Different From What You Imagine

Unlike most Western countries, Christmas in Japan is not associated with a family holiday, but is rather an evening you spend with your spouse or romantic partner, and the most popular foods for Christmas Eve in Japan are fried chicken from KFC and strawberry sponge cake.

New Year, on the other hand, is a 3- to 5-day holiday where most Japanese travel to their hometowns to spend time with their families. Although countdown parties do exist in touristy areas of Japan’s big cities, New Year is usually a quiet affair where people enjoy good food and visit a temple for hatsumode, the first prayer of the year.

5. Going Out and Doing Things Alone Is Perfectly Normal

Eager to visit Japan but don’t have any travel companions? Fear not, Japan is a great country for solo experiences! In other countries, it might feel intimidating to walk into a restaurant and sit down to eat by yourself, but in Japan there’s absolutely nothing embarrassing about solo dining, and many people do it daily. How about grabbing one of the counter seats and watching the chef at work while you enjoy your meal?

Solo adventures are not limited to eating out - going to the cinema or hitting a late night karaoke session by yourself is also perfectly acceptable. In fact, the solo experience is so popular that entire businesses and chain stores have been created around this concept - from 1Kara karaoke where you can sing to your heart’s content in a personal, spaceship-like compartment, to the Yakiniku Like chain restaurant offering solo diners an opportunity to enjoy a tasty yakiniku meal by themselves.

And then there are bars like Bar Hitori where you are only allowed to enter if you come alone, creating the perfect environment for those who either want to engage in conversation with other solo drinkers, or enjoy some quiet contemplation with a drink in their own company.

6. Tokyo’s Rush Hour “People Pushers” Don’t Exist Anymore

Tokyo rush hour is unlike anything we’ve experienced anywhere else: everyday millions of people cram into trains and subways as they commute to work, and on some lines people are so tightly packed that you can actually sleep standing up without falling over.

You might have seen videos from Tokyo subway stations during rush hour where specially assigned station staff would use all their strength to push the hordes of people trying to make it onto the train. However, this procedure didn’t come without accidents, and today the station staff are not allowed to push directly on people’s bodies - instead, they will try to hold the doors open until all limbs and luggage are safely inside the carriage.

7. Love Hotels Are Not Just for Lovers

Love hotels exist throughout Japan, with large concentrations in specific areas of major cities, but they are not the seedy establishments many think them to be. In a country where space is limited and multi-generation households are still common, many love hotels still serve their original purpose of giving couples of all ages an opportunity for some much needed privacy.

However, many are also used by businessmen or friends traveling together as they can be cheaper and more readily available than regular hotels. Many love hotels even have special packages catering to this demographic - women on a “girls' night out” or similar occasions for groups of friends.

8. University Life Focuses More on Extracurricular Activities Than Studying

It is notoriously difficult to get into “the right” university in Japan, and every year teenagers are having mental breakdowns as the dreaded university entrance exam approaches. But once admitted, university life is for the most part very relaxed, and most Japanese students focus more on hobbies and activities with friends and fellow students than studying during their four years at university.

In addition, only a fraction of Japanese graduates find employment in a field related to the subject of their degree. This is partly due to the fact that many companies consider the degree itself essential but the subject irrelevant, and most office jobs come with a mandatory 1 year training period.

9. Japan’s Train Punctuality Is Astounding

Trains in Japan are not only clean, comfortable, and convenient, they are also the most punctual in the world with an average delay of only 18 seconds.

With such punctuality, it can be hard to convince your boss or teacher that you’re late for the meeting or class because your train was delayed and you didn’t catch the connection. This is why the station staff - in the rare case of a delay on your daily morning commute - will issue a certificate upon request to confirm that the train company is indeed to blame for your tardiness.

10. On Valentine's Day, It's the Women's Treat

In other countries, Valentine’s Day is usually known as the day where couples spoil each other with gifts, chocolate, and flowers. In Japan, however, the duty is solely on the women, and it’s not necessarily romantic either.

Although women do give gifts to their romantic partners, an even bigger part of Valentine’s Day is the semi-mandatory chocolate gifting to male co-workers known as girichoko (lit. obligation chocolate), with female office workers often spending considerable amounts of time and money to get special limited edition chocolates from popular stores.

One month later, on the 14th of March, is the time for cashing in: on White Day, men are supposed to give their female co-workers back in chocolate three times the amount of what they received from them on Valentine’s Day.

11. Japan's Intricate Trash Sorting System Confuses Many

Japan boasts an extremely detailed trash sorting system. As a resident, you will know that there are set rules for sorting everything from paper and metal to kitchen leftovers and electronics, and that you are only allowed to put it outside your house for collection on certain days of the week. As a tourist, you will notice the sets of trash cans at train stations and convenience stores, all clearly labeled for “bottles,” “cans,” “packaging,” etc.

While this might lead you to think that sustainability and being environmentally friendly have a high priority, Japan is in fact one of the countries using the most single-use plastic worldwide, and you will notice that everything here is individually wrapped in plastic - from fruits and vegetables at the supermarket to individual pieces inside a box of chocolates. And the truth is, at the end of the day, a lot of the carefully sorted and collected trash ends up getting burned together at the same plant.

12. Japan Runs on Analogue Solutions and Old Technology

You might know Japan as the land of technology - home to high-speed bullet trains, pioneers in the computer and mobile industry, and inventors of the most surprising gadgets. And while this is all true, Japanese society also very much relies on analogue solutions.

Walk into any large office to see huge, decade-old computers and piles of files and paperwork, and don’t count on being able to sign up for anything online - many services require application by mail, and at places like banks and real estate agents, you are required to physically stamp paperwork using a unique personal stamp known as "hanko."

For tourists, things can get complicated as many hotels only take reservations by phone or fax, and although credit cards and digital money are gaining popularity, many shops and restaurants still only accept cash.

13. Japan’s Incredible Number of Vending Machines

With an estimated 5.5 million vending machines, Japan can rightly call itself the country with the highest density of vending machines on the planet, with roughly 1 machine per every 23 people!

Most of these vending machines are there to quench your thirst with chilled juice and soft drinks in the sweltering summer heat, or to warm you up from the inside with hot chocolate, coffee, and tea on a frosty winter day, with some also selling alcohol and cigarettes. However, sometimes you will notice machines offering some highly unusual goods - from bananas, love letters, and instant ramen to fresh eggs, sex toys, or even bottled water from different parts of Japan.

14. Face Masks Are Commonly Worn in Japan

COVID-19 changed people’s views on face masks throughout the world, but in Japan, face masks have been an everyday item for the average Japanese for decades.

Contrary to popular beliefs, the Japanese do not wear these masks to protect themselves from getting sick, but rather wear them on days they aren’t feeling well to protect the people around them. One reason for this is that sick days don’t exist in many Japanese companies, hence the employees have to go to work even when they are down with a cold or the flu. Since most people take the packed train to work, distancing themselves from other passengers is not an option.

Other uses of the face mask are to ease the symptoms of hay fever which is very common in Japan, and to hide your make-up free face on days you get out of bed a bit too late - or on the days you are just feeling lazy.

15. Many Japanese Have Little Vacation, But Many Holidays

Being a society where long working hours and dedication to the workplace is regarded highly, the average Japanese worker has only a few annual vacation days - starting out with 10-15 vacation days per year is common when you start a job in a new company. However, Japan has no less than 16 national public holidays which means that there is at least one long weekend per month on average.

16. Japanese Toilets Aren't Always As Magical As They Seem

When you first come to Japan, you will soon notice the abundance of toilets - they are literally everywhere, even on hiking trails and other places where you would never think such facilities to be available. And they are usually painstakingly clean and featuring those infamous high-tech toilets (washlets) you’ve heard so much about - the ones that play music to muffle your business and wash your lower regions with adjustable water temperatures and pressures. And did we mention the heated seats? You will never want to sit down on a regular toilet seat in winter after visiting Japan.

However, despite the existence of all these sophisticated comforts, traditional squat-style toilets are still very common in Japan as well, even in surprising places like big city shopping malls and international airports. Furthermore, most public restrooms only have cold water in the taps and nothing to dry your hands with, which is why most people in Japan carry a small hand towel with them everywhere.

17. The Japanese Don’t Use Ovens for Cooking

Japanese cuisine is world-famous: tasty, healthy, diverse, and often with equal emphasis on taste and presentation, there’s no end to Japan’s amazing culinary adventures. You might be surprised, though, that ovens are almost non-existent here.

Although microwave/tabletop oven combinations are gaining popularity, most Japanese apartments only have a small drawer-like fish broiler under the gas stove, and you will be very lucky to find a kitchen with a built-in oven.

18. Japan Measures Earthquakes Differently Than the Rest of the World

The island nation of Japan sits on the so-called "Ring of Fire" with high seismic activity, and as a result the country sees approximately 1,500 earthquakes every year - from barely noticeable tremors to big quakes causing immense damage. What’s interesting is that Japan actually uses a different scale to measure its earthquakes than the rest of the world, namely the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) Seismic Intensity Scale.

Where the more commonly known Richter’s scale indicates how much energy an earthquake releases, the JMA scale represents how much ground shaking takes place in various sites throughout an affected area. The JMA scale is based on the idea that it makes more sense to measure how the shaking is perceived by people and affects the surroundings on the ground, because it makes it easier for people to understand what to do when a bigger earthquake happens.

With 0 being the lowest and 7 the highest value, each step on the scale is assigned a description (for example: hanging objects will start swaying and light sleepers will wake up), and official warnings about measures to be taken in case of an earthquake will initially be based on the JMA scale number.

19. Silence Is Politeness

People in Japan are generally very considerate of each other and it is considered rude to bother people with inconveniences like noise. On trains and buses in Japan, people usually talk to each other in a low voice, there will be announcements asking people to switch their phones to silent mode, and you will also rarely see people talking on the phone at cafes, restaurants, or other public places with other people nearby.

One exception to keeping your voice as low and considerate as possible is at restaurants, izakaya (pubs), and bars where it’s perfectly acceptable to exclaim a very loud “sumimasen!” (excuse me!) to get your waiter’s attention.

20. People in Japan Spend a Lot of Time Standing in Line

With a population of almost 14 million people in the metropolitan area, Tokyo is not a city you can ever have to yourself, and you will find yourself standing in line more often than not. Getting on the train, getting a coffee, getting on the escalator, getting a seat at that popular ramen lunch spot - there’s always somebody who has gotten there first, and all you can do is to line up and wait. Some train stations with multiple train lines will have elaborate color-coded systems for lining up displayed on the platform.

Unlike many other countries though, standing in line in Japan is a rather pleasant experience. You can rest assured that your turn will come up eventually as no one will be cutting in front of you, and as everyone here is used to waiting in line like this, there will be no impatient or rude yelling at staff to hurry up once the queue exceeds 3-4 people.

 

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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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Maya
Maya V.

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