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Oleander PSR Program Cultural Guide to Japan

Part One: Important Cultural Aspects to Know Before Visiting Japan


clock pictureOne 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.

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.

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?

Although, Japan has very low crime, please use common sense with your valuables.

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. TIP: Bring along easy to remove “slip on” shoes – you will be taking off your shoes a lot in Japan!

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!

recycling 1
Paper,plastic, bottles, PET bottles, caps for PET bottles, aluminum cans, metal cans, combustibles, in-combustibles…I give up…

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! TIP: Buy a portable ashtray at at convenience store for 100 yen once you arrive in Japan


no smoking
Yup, this is outside…










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…

complex toliet 1
Go on…push all the buttons all at the same time…see what happens….

TIP: Learn the Japanese characters for  (大) for big flush and (小) for small flush. complex toliet 2

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.

Perfumes + Colognes: Perfumes and colognes is not widely used in Japan. Please refrain from using excessive amounts during your stay in Japan.

no perfumes.jpg

Cultural Norms:

Politeness: 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 translated 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. In the coming weeks, we will provide a list of people you will meet at the program, so you can plan accordingly.

The Japanese love packaging…

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 probably being shy, not rude.

Japanese – English : 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!). On the street, if all else fails, try speaking in English with a Japanese accent….

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.

Don’t worry, you dont have to learn these!


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


Mid March is a wonderful time to visit Hiroshima. Temperatures are generally in the 50’s and sunny. There is some rain (average of 8 days during the month), so be sure to bring some rain protection. Dont forget to bring one set of semi-formal clothes for our visit to the elementary school and then to meet Ambassador Koizumi at the Hiroshima Mayor’s office on the 19th.


Please be aware that there is a 20 kilo maximum weight limit for the domestic flight between Tokyo and Hiroshima that is sporadically observed. From our experience, the 20 kilo weight limit is enforced with an additional fee around 10% of the time.


During our stay in Japan, we will stay at the Sotesu Grand Fresa Hiroshima Hotel (Formally known as the Sunroute Hotel). This hotel is one of the most famous in Hiroshima and has a wonderful view of peace park from the roof dining room where you will be eating your breakfasts.


view from sunroute

TIP: Refer to your hotel as the Sunroute hotel if you are using a taxi to get to your hotel.

As with most hotels in Japan, the rooms are smaller but will be immaculately clean. Due to the heavy programming at the Oleander Initiative, you can expect to spend the majority of your time outside your hotel room during the program.

Laundry machines are available at the Sunroute hotel  but due to the intensity of the schedule, participants may not have the opportunity to do their laundry during the program.

Please pack accordingly. 


Learn how to eat with these!

In many restaurants in Japan, chopsticks are the only utensils available. We highly recommend that you learn how to use them before you get to Japan. Go to this tutorial  and practice with 2 pencils. LEARN HOW  TO EAT WITH CHOPSTICKS! Don’t go hungry in Japan….


customs form.gif

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.

Use the following information to fill in the “accommodations” space on your visa entry form

Sotesu Grand Fresa Hiroshima Hotel

3-3-1 Ote-machi Naka-ku, Hiroshima


moneyCurrency Exchange: We highly recommend that you exchange dollars to yen at the airport. It is often difficult for participants to exchange dollars to yen because of intense daytime schedule of the Oleander Initiative. It is possible to take out yen from ATM machines in Japan, especially if you belong to a large bank such as Bank of America. However, be aware of high ATM fees that can run as high as $20 per withdrawal. In Hiroshima, all 7-11 convenience stores contain ATM machines that are friendly to international withdrawals.

Change: Unlike the US, 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 rough equivalent of $5. The least valuable paper currency is 1000 yen, or the rough 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.

Woo Hoo! I’m Rich!

Mobile Phones + Internet Access

Most American phone carriers can be used in Japan and Sprint has a special deal for mobile use in Japan. Many participants choose to rent a wi-fi box at the airport that will allow them to communicate using Skype, Whats App or other apps or programs. Please click HERE for information about this option.  Please be aware that the Sunroute hotel provides wifi access and many places in Hiroshima (the Peace Museum, bus and train terminals, numerous restaurants and cafes) have free public wifi. Hiroshima also has city – wide free wifi, but the connections can be spotty.

Convenience Stores

“Kon-binis” or convenience stores are everywhere in Japan and they are AWESOME. 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.

fam mart

Electrical Appliances

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. Please be aware that in rare instances, small electronic devices may malfunction if it they are plugged in a Japanese outlet for too long. Some participants have charged a portable battery and then charged headphones, phones etc. Lastly, if you have a 3 prong device, make sure that you bring an adapter to change it to 2 prong. Click HERE for additional information.

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