This is another installment in the does and don’t of Japanese culture. Basically, a short and sometimes humorous (I hope) look at ways you should and shouldn’t behave when visiting or living in Japan.
As a foreigner in Japan, Japanese people will definitely treat you differently than they would fellow Japanese. There are different expectations for you. Japanese people understand that you come from a different place and have a different culture. They will expect that you don’t really understand their culture. This can be a very good thing when you make innocent mistakes, but its not something that should be abused.
There is a term in Japan called “Gaijin Smash.” This is basically when foreigners intentionally misbehave in Japan and pretend to be ignorant to the cultural rules and possibly even laws. Some foreigners use this as a way to get things done and sometimes just for fun. It can be pretty irritating and is often done by foreigners somewhat new to Japan and possibly younger (20’s), but I’ve also seen middle-aged foreigners who’ve been here for a long time do it.
I wanted to talk about drinking in public and how that’s something that can be abused by those visiting Japan or relatively new to the country.
In Japan you can drink in public. This doesn’t mean you can use the street as an izakaya or nightclub, but you can enjoy a can of beer on the street or on a train.
You may be allowed to do this, but it is often something that may be looked down on by some in Japanese society.
In Japan, the people who normally drink in public are old men, people of a “lower class” or salary men after a day at work. Sometimes you may see the Japanese equivelant of hipsters having some outside drinks, but it’s definitely not everyone doing it.
You’ll even see some office workers having a beer or Chu-hi on the train after work, but they are normally low-key about it. They are normally just quietly sitting on the train, enjoying a drink and looking out the window or at their phones. It’s not a party train.
Sometimes, when groups of foreigners get together and head out for the night or simply head home after work, they grab drinks and hop on the train. They talk loudly (not common in Japan) and sometimes drink a lot. Now of course, most foreigners in Japan don’t do this, but some do.
It’s important to remember that while visiting Japan, you are a guest here and while I personally think it’s okay to enjoy a drink on the train or street, it should be done respectfully. Some may disagree with me and say that it’s never okay to do it.
You have to remember that some people in Japan have very little exposure to foreigners. If you are on the train, doing the “Gaijin Smash” thing….drinking and being loud, they may assume all non-Japanese behave that way. It’s of course wrong for them to make such generalizations, but it may happen.
Once upon a time there was something called the Yamanote Line Halloween Party. Dozens, if not hundreds of foreigners at its’ height would pour onto the Yamanote Line train Halloween night and party hard! It really pissed off Japanese commuters on their way home from work. Eventually the train line, police and angry Japanese netizens put an end to it. Apparently the crash of the eikaiwa chain NOVA in 2007 helped with that as well. Many of the foreigners who liked misbehaving that way left Japan due to lack of employment.
Also, imagine a family is on the train with young children. What would they think if there is a loud group of people drinking booze around them? Probably not being the best cultural ambassador of your country!
Long story short, it make be legal to tip back a few beverages in public, but do it respectfully when in Japan. Even when you do that, there may be people around you who don’t like it.
Remember, Japanese people are known for keeping their true feelings inside so just because no one tells you your behavior is wrong, that doesn’t make it right!
This may seem like a preachy and “judgey” post….well it is.
I don’t claim to be a “Japan expert”, but am sharing what I’ve observed over the years and what I have learned from talking to Japanese people about the topic. I’ll even admit that over the years I’ve been here in japan I’ve had a few drinks on trains, but I’m doing it quietly like the Japanese people around me (who are having a drink too) do it.
Below is a video of some foreigners drinking on a train in Tokyo and making the wrong Japanese guy angry!
Back to my beer….
Kevin O’Shea is the host of the Just Japan Podcast and the Just Japan News Podcast. He is also the guy behind JustJapanStuff. Kevin is a Canadian educator who lives in Kobe, Japan with his family.
Follow him on Twitter: @jlandkev