Part One: Important Cultural Aspects to Know Before Visiting Japan
One of the first things you will notice in Japan is its efficiency. Trains, buses, airplanes, EVERYTHING is on time. Meals are served quickly and efficiently and events are orchestrated with amazing precision. One of the reasons for this amazing organization is because of the high cultural value on timeliness. Timeliness is one of the most important cultural aspects in Japan and it is considered extremely impolite to be even a few minutes late. Japanese people tend to arrive 5 to 10 minutes before any meeting for both work and for social events. In Tokyo train stations, there are public announcements apologizing to passengers if a train is even one minute late!
During the Oleander Initiative, please make extra efforts to be 5 minutes early for all activities during the program.
Click below, to see a short video of Rie and Era demonstrating this cultural norm!
Strong Cultural Traditions and an Emphasis on “Correctness”:
Japan is a country with strong cultural traditions. Although, Japan is famous for its adaptability and modern, globalized outlook, there are some aspects of the culture that are viewed as immobile. In Japan, there is high value on doing things, both big and small, “correctly”. This emphasis on “correctness” may result in difficult cultural interactions for visitors. One of the best examples of this cultural trait is captured by Sheena Iyenger in a TED talk where she describes how difficult it was for her to get sugar in our green tea in Kyoto. See the first 2:45 minutes of this TED talk below to get a better understanding of “correctness” in Japan and why it was impossible to add sugar to green tea in Japan (sorry Moroccans!..haha)
Safety and Security
Japan is famous for its low crime rate and the honesty of its citizens. Watch a social experiment below where a researcher dropped his wallet 15 times on a Tokyo street. Guess how many times it was returned?
In Hiroshima, the World Friendship Center (where we will be staying) has never had a criminal incident in over 40 years, even though it has never once locked its doors. However, we recommend that you take your valuables with you or lock them at the safe at the World Friendship Center Office when we are out and about in Hiroshima.
Cleanliness and Hygiene
Japanese people place a high value on cleanliness and hygiene. Wonderfully spotless pubic bathrooms are commonplace in even large cities like Tokyo and public areas are usually completely devoid of litter. Food safety protocols are among the highest in the world and instances of food poisoning resulting from unclean food are extremely rare. With the Japanese emphasis on cleanliness in mind, please be aware of the following cultural norms
Shoes: Shoes are never worn in Japanese houses, schools and numerous other private areas. Some restaurants and stores may require you to take off your shoes as well. Make sure you check to see if removing your shoes is necessary before entering any new enclosed space during the program.
Trash: Do not litter in Japan! It is considered very rude and it is possible for you to be fined by the police if you are caught.
Recycling is also strictly observed in Japan, with there being separate trash bins of bottles, paper, plastic, and even the caps of bottles!
See Rie demonstrating how to use the recycling boxes at a Japanese “kon-bini” or convenience store below. As you will discover during you stay in Japan, there are lots of abbreviated English words in everyday Japanese including “toi-re” (toilet), “paso-con” (personal computer), “air-con” (air conditioner), “biru” (building). English words are often also re-purposed and combined in interesting and funny ways as well. Some examples are “baby car” (baby carriage), “Salary man and OL” (male office worker and female office worker. The OL stands for Office Lady), “mug cup” (a mug for hot liquids), “baton touch” (when a work task is passed from one person to another), and my favorite “Viking” (all you can eat restaurant!).
Smoking: Japan observes strict non-smoking areas, both inside and outside. In many areas in Tokyo and Hiroshima, it is illegal to smoke and walk on the sidewalk at the same time and smoking is relegated to designated areas. If you smoke, make sure to bring a container with you to Japan. Unless you are inside, there is nowhere to throw away your cigarette butts when you are done!
Medical masks: While in Japan, you may notice some people wearing medical masks over their faces. This practice is relatively common and are worn by people who may be ill (even with a minor cold) and are being considerate or by people who are protecting themselves from illness. Don’t be alarmed, a person wearing a medical mask does not mean that they have a highly contagious disease!
Toilets: Japanese toilets can be very complicated! Even in public restrooms, toilets may include separate buttons for heat, bidet, blow dry, vibration, and even deodorizer! Unfortunately, because the buttons are labeled in Japanese, using the bathrooms can be quite an adventure…
The most important Japanese characters to learn are (大) for big flush and (小) for small flush.
On a related note, there are often no paper towels or drying machines in Japanese bathrooms. The reason is because most Japanese people carry a handkerchief with them and use it to dry their hands. You may consider bringing one on your travels.
Japan is a highly polite culture that places great value on empathy and hospitality. In general, Japanese people are very welcoming of tourists and will go out of their way to make you feel comfortable and welcomed. The Japanese emphasis on politeness may also be confusing to a first time visitor to Japan. Some examples can be found below.
Greetings in stores: It is common for workers in stores to greet you with “irashaimasse!” roughly translate as “welcome!” When visiting a store, you may hear this phase many times from different people. You are not obligated to respond to this greeting and can just smile or nod in return.
Gift giving: Giving presents to visitors is considered to be polite in Japan. Many visitors often feel overwhelmed by the amount and generosity of the gifts they receive from even casual acquaintances. You may also receive unexpected gifts from the various sites and schools we will visit at the Oleander Initiative. It may be a good idea to bring some small gifts from your country to give back in return.
Communication: The cultural trait on politeness and correctness may also explain why it is sometimes difficult to communicate in English in Japan. Although, English is universally taught in high school in Japan, it may be challenging to find English speakers during your time at the Oleander Initiative. Many Japanese may feel that their grasp of English is not good enough, and therefore running the risk of being mistakenly offensive or incorrect when talking to a foreigner. Please understand that if Japanese people are reluctant to help you when you are speaking English, they are being shy, not rude.
Bowing: It is customary for Japanese people to greet each other with bows. The basics of bowing involves placing your hands at your sides and slightly bending your back and head forwards. However, the angle, speed, duration and head placement are all dependent on the seniority of the person you are greeting, and the formality of the context.
To view some of the complexities of Japanese bowing, click HERE
When in Japan, dont worry about bowing. The Japanese will understand that you do not know Their customs will give you a “free pass.” Most Japanese are comfortable with shaking hands, so either greeting should work well with whoever you meeting during your time in Japan.
Part Two: Japan Travel Tips
Japan, and especially Hiroshima which lies in the south of the country, is very hot and humid during the summer. The average temperature in Hiroshima during August is 31 degrees centigrade. Coming from the MENA region, this may not seem so high, but it is the humidity that makes it so uncomfortable! Think of summer where you are from and then imagine going to the bathroom and standing next to a hot shower for a while. Wear light, loose clothing and consider bringing extra shirts to change during the long days we are in the city of Hiroshima.
See Rie and Era’s informative video below
Please be aware that there is a 20 kilo maximum weight limit for the domestic flight between Tokyo and Hiroshima that is strictly observed.
You will also have to travel with your suitcase from the hotel in Tokyo, to the train station, and then board a crowded train to go to the airport on August 2, so please restrict yourself to one large suitcase and one carry on. In general, do not bring any extra items and save your space for extra clothing (see below).
All participants will stay at the World Friendship Center (WFC) in Hiroshima. The WFC is a non-profit organization with the mission to spread what happened during the bombing of Hiroshima to the world. Please click HERE is view the WFC website. In order to fulfill its mission, the WFC operates a traditional Japanese house to accommodate guests from throughout the world.
Each participant will have one roommate and have the opportunity to live in traditional Japanese surroundings during the week of the program.
Laundry machines are available during at the WFC but due to the intensity of the schedule, participants may not have the opportunity to do their laundry during the program.
Please pack accordingly.
In many restaurants in Japan, the only utensil available are chopsticks. We highly recommend that you learn how to use them before you get to Japan. Please see Era demonstrating how to use them and what to say before eating in Japan.
If you didn’t get how to eat with chopsticks from Era, then go to this tutorial and practice with 2 pencils. LEARN HOW TO EAT WITH CHOPSTICKS! Don’t go hungry in Japan….
When you arrive in Japan, you will go through a mandatory health check by going through a scanner that measures your body temperature and a customs check that includes taking your photograph and fingerprints. Make sure you bring the following with you to show the customs officials at the airport.
- The 1 page description of the Oleander Initiative in Japanese. Oleander 1 page Japanese and English 5 20 16
- The letter of endorsement in Japanese from the Mayor of Hiroshima. LoE Mayor Matsui
- The Oleander Schedule Oleander Schedule 7 21 16
- All the materials you received from Gensukiyo
- Use the folloing informaiton to fill in the “accommodations” space on your visa entry formWhile in TokyoShinagawa Prince Hotel
10-30 Takanawa 4-chome, Minato-ku
Tokyo, 108-8611 Japan
While in Hiroshima
World Friendship Center
8-10 Higashi Kan-on, Nishi-ku
Hiroshima 733-0032 Japan
Currency Exchange: It is extremely difficult to exchange currency from the Middle East and North Africa in Japan. Even at Narita and Haneda Airports, certain currencies from the MENA region are not accepted. In addition, numerous ATM machines only accept cards from Japanese banks. We highly recommend that you exchange local currency to yen in your home country. If this is not possible, then exchange local currency for dollars or euros, which will be easier to exchange.
Change: Unlike many MENA countries, change or metal coins in Japan are valuable, and used often. Japanese metal currency ranges from 1 yen (1 cent) to the 500 yen piece that is the equivalent of $5. The least valuable paper currency is 1000 yen, or the equivalent of $10. As a result, you will make a lot of change from your daily purchases in Japan. It may be a good idea to bring a coin purse to hold all your change.
Mobile Phones + Internet Access
Japan does not use the GSM network system common in the MENA region, so simply switching the sim card is usually not possible. More information about Japanese mobile phones can be found HERE. It is also possible to communicate using Skype, Whats App or other apps or programs by renting a mobile wifi hotspot at the airport. Please click HERE for information about this option. Please be aware that the World Friendship Center has full wifi access and many places in Hiroshima (the Peace Museum, bus and train terminals, numerous restaurants and cafes) have free wifi.
“Kon-binis” or convenience stores are everywhere in Japan. They are open 24 hours a day and serve surprisingly high-quality food, drinks, magazines and a variety of other items. They are great for a snack anytime and because they are usually staffed by younger people, they are more likely to speak English.
Japan uses a two pin prongs that are identical to the two pin prongs in America. Most electrical appliances that work in the US, with the exception of high energy devices such as irons and hair dryers, should also work in Japan. Click HERE for additional information.