Headbloom Blog

Ways to Tick Off the Japanese
We always try to put our best foot forward in cross-cultural encounters, but our original training, ignorance, or sometimes misinformation get in the way. Today’s guest blog advises readers (especially in the United States) how to avoid offending the Japanese.

A Half-Dozen Behaviors Sure to Annoy the Japanese

1. Say, “Your English is much better than my Japanese.”

This is based on an assumption that you know only several Japanese words such as ohayo, arigato, and sayonara (good morning, thanks, goodbye). The above statement is true because all Japanese people study English for at least 3 years. They are supposed to learn about 900 words between the 7th and 9th grades and an additional 1300 words in the following 3 years. Then why is a true statement offensive to them? The answer would be obvious if you think about similar comparisons: “Your IQ is much higher than a squirrel’s.” or “Your Harley Davidson is much faster than my son’s pony stick.” If you would like to genuinely praise somebody’s English skills, just drop the comparison. “Your English is really good; I can understand you very easily.” would make them extremely happy.

2. Put your feet up

Now, many Westerners know that they are supposed to take off their shoes when entering Japanese homes. Yes, shoes are dirty. Even Western people know that. However, when it comes to “what can touch shoes” judgment, there is a striking difference. If you stand up on a chair or bench with your shoes on, you are showing pretty bad manners. Since standing on a seat is already bad, you can imagine how Japanese people feel if you put your feet up on a table or desk. Then, you might ask, is it all right if you take off your shoes and put your feet on the table? The answer is “no” unfortunately.

image photo: Fotolia

3. Chew gum

This is not to say you should refrain from chewing gum all the time (like in some countries). You can chew gum in front of Japanese when watching TV or playing pool. But you should never chew gum when you want to look serious. This includes, but is not limited to, working, apologizing, giving advice, and proposing. Decades ago, when American culture was less widely accepted, American baseball players playing in Japan (mostly retiring MLB players) were criticized by the media simply because they were chewing gum in the field. This negative impression lingers today.

4. Assume Japanese are similar to Chinese or Koreans

Westerners cannot distinguish Japanese from Chinese or Koreans by visual observation. It is very difficult even for the Japanese to do. And even though there are biological and genetic similarities, this does not guarantee similarity of culture or thought processes. “You probably understand the way Mr. Kim (Korean) or Ms. Wu (Chinese) thinks because you are Japanese.” is often not right and is sometimes offensive. However, this is much better than saying “Hey, I saw somebody from your country yesterday,” referring to a Korean or Chinese.

5. Show your tattoos

Very few people in Japan have tattoos and the size will be small even if they have them. The exception is among yakuza (gang members). In other words, regardless of your social belief or occupation, you will be regarded as yakuza if you have a large tattoo. For this reason, many places such as athletic clubs and golf courses won’t allow people with visible tattoos to enter their property.
image photo: iStock

6. Say, “Huh?”

Americans often say, “Huh?” to encourage speakers to repeat themselves. The tone in which you say “huh” to a Japanese person could be taken in many different ways. It could have been interpreted as nonchalant by Americans, but to Japanese not used to speaking English, it could sound like an angry response, an effort to intimidate the person, or even as mocking his/her comment. A better way to go about getting someone to repeat what they said would be the old-fashioned approach: to say “Could you repeat that?” or “Pardon?”

This guest blog is a collaboration between Toshio Suzuki and Toru Suzuki. Born in Japan, both father and son have feet planted in two cultures, having lived, studied, and worked in the U.S. for over 15 years. They reside in Houston, TX and Ann Arbor, MI, respectively. Send feedback to Toru here: skierru@gmail.com.

Vocabulary for Students

  • to tick off = to bother, make angry, annoy, upset, irritate
  • put our best foot forward = try to make a good impression
  • encounters = meetings
  • ignorance = not knowing, lack of information
  • refrain from = try not to do
  • mocking = making fun of

Alan Headbloom