Helpful tips to survive expat life in Japan


Helpful tips to survive expat life in Japan

The land of the rising sun has long been appealing for potential expats. Due to its location on the other side of the world and the long periods of time that the nation was isolated from the rest of the world Japan does often feel like another planet at times. To help a would-be expat out we offer some tips that will help you navigate this strange and enigmatic country.


As with many Asian countries (and house proud western homes) it is customary to take off your shoes before entering a carpeted room, some areas of restaurants and most importantly someone’s house. We recommend that you always wear decent socks and if possible put some odour eaters in your shoes. If you think having to take your shoes off is obnoxious then just imagine how you would feel if someone tramped their dirty shoes all over your house.

Japanese Toilets

Toilets in Japan are something a mix bag and surprisingly are one of the ones that highlight the mixture of ancient and ultra modern aspects of Japanese culture. In some places you could be greeted with an ultra modern robot toilet complete with heated toilet seat, bidet and own voice, in others you’re likely to be greeted with just a hole in the ground.

Also always make sure to take the tissue packets the phone company representative’s hand out at train stations as the toilet paper situation in a Japanese public bathroom is usually grim.

Hand gestures

The Japanese use a large variety of hand gestures which to a foreigner can seem very strange. In Japan, when someone points at their nose, they’re referring to themselves, be warned that pointing at objects is considered rude, a better way to refer to something is to gesture with an outstretched hand instead. If you want to convey that you’ve had enough of something such as a service, a drinks or some food, wave your hand in front of your nose, as though waving away something smelly.

Sometimes when walking through a crowded street you may see a businessman or woman striding through the crowds with the heel of their palm pressed against their chest. No they’re not pretending to be a shark, in fact they are quietly telling the people around them to keep out of the way!


Most restaurant menus are written in Japanese so unless you’ve learnt to read the language you will be a bit confused as to what is available to eat. Luckily many restaurant owners cater to non-Japanese speaking customers by including photos of the food next to its name.

It’s certainly helpful, but be aware of the fact that Japanese cuisine often makes use of animal parts considered trash in the Western world, a picture is often difficult to use to determine what is actually a delicious chicken and not cartilage, liver, or heart.

The shopkeeper isn’t mad

Often when entering a shop or restaurant you will notice that the staff tends to, well, shout at you with a yell of, “irasshaimaseeeeeeee!” Relax, don’t have a heart attack, they’re not mad at you. Irrasshaimase is a shopkeeper’s welcome which translates to “come in!” alerting the other staff to your presence, and loosely meaning “I’m here, ready to serve you.”

Keep it quiet

One of the most common stereotypes about Westerners in Japan is that they speak very loudly. Japanese also consider the bad habits of eating whilst walking and chatting on your mobile phone in public to be extremely rude. Basically all the things that probably irritate you in the West are particularly frowned upon in Japan. The Japanese are very orderly people and as their society is geared more towards the good of all rather than an individual so be aware of the volume of your voice.

Do you have any other tips for living in Japan? Let s know via the Expat Hub forum  or via Twitter and Facebook.

The Expat Hub
This post was written by
If you’ve already moved abroad, if you’re in the process of moving abroad or if you’re only thinking about it, the Expat Hub is here for you. For expatriates looking for advice, support and information, we’re the number one online stop.