One of the most common search terms people Google to find Doot is “impressing Japanese locals quick guide”. We’ve never written anything about this, so I thought it’s about time to give you an answer and some advice around it. To give you the most accurate advice, I reached out to our network of expats in Japan.
Why expats? Well, to have a comfortable life as an expat, you need to integrate into the local community, at least to some degree. Integration into the local community can happen in many ways, but impressing them is a large part of this. So, here is what five expats from central Japan advise you to do, ranked from easiest to hardest…
1. Pick up any item of food with chopsticks
Difficulty level: Super easy
This was a comment made tongue-in-cheek, but is strangely true. Whether Japanese people know that chopsticks are common enough in non-Asian countries is unclear. What we do know, is that you get a lot of brownie points with the locals for being able to use chopsticks. Brush up on your chopsticks skills by eating a bowl of cup ramen before arriving in Japan. That should be good enough to get you up to speed, and you’ll be celebrated with a lot of “oohs” and “aahs” when eating out. It’s ranked the number one easiest way, because you practically don’t need to do anything if you’re at all familiar with chopsticks.
2. Say any word in Japanese
Difficulty level: Easy
Although this was said a bit facetiously by the expats, there’s a whole lot of truth to it. If you say konnichiwa (hello) or arigatou gozaimasu (thank you) to a cashier in a store, you’re likely to be met with ah! Nihongo jouzu desu ne! (Wow, your Japanese is good, hey!). They’re being genuinely kind and appreciative that you took the effort to learn even a tiny bit of their vocabulary. If you want to impress them, this is probably the number one way to do it. Fortunately, it’s also the super easy way.
So why does this get on the nerves of expats in Japan? Usually because they’ve taken the time to learn a whole lot more Japanese than the basic pleasantries and it can come across as patronizing to some. Above all, expats tend to hear this multiple times a week. It gets old – ever heard the saying “kill them with kindness”? Pretty apt, don’t you think? Nonetheless, it’s nothing too serious and more so something to have a laugh about at an expat gathering or something of the like. As a visitor, give yourself a hi5 or better yet, accept the hi5 being offered by the local for your efforts.
3. Speak Kansai-ben in natural conversation
Difficulty level: Moderately easy
Kansai is the region of Japan where Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe are located. Ben simply means dialect. So, speak the dialect of the region while you’re visiting one of the above three cities, which you’re highly likely to visit, and you’re going to be met with a lot of wide eyes and even possibly applause.
This is a relatively easy one to pull off, especially because Kansai-ben is the most common non-standard Japanese dialect. There are loads of resources online that will give you single words or phrases that you can use to bring big smiles of surprise to the locals of this region. This is ranked harder than speaking a single word of Japanese. The resources will obviously be fewer than for standard Japanese, and finding the right time to use it can take some effort.
4. Be kawaii as f***
Difficulty level: Moderate
Does this one come as a surprise to anyone? Kawaii is probably the most well-known Japanese word around the world, and it’s used liberally by Japanese people in conversation. Child is crying? Kawaii. Your shoelaces are tied in an artistic way? Kawaii. Your laugh sounds innocent and delicate? Kawaii. The bread you’re eating has an imprint of a bear on it? You guessed it – kawaii. So, if you’re able to dress, speak, or behave with some degree of cuteness, you’re going to get the thumbs up very quickly.
Although you should pack light when you travel, try to pack at least one item that can enhance your kawaii-ness. It shouldn’t be too hard, honestly. Even a cute hat will do. Nonetheless, it will take a degree of planning on your behalf to pull this one off, and you’ll need to find something that suits your style. For that reason, it’s neither easy nor hard – it just takes some effort.
5. Don’t be not local
Difficulty level: Difficult
In other words, be Japanese. This one was said relatively tongue-in-cheek. Are you seeing a pattern here?
The Japanese population, for the most part, is fiercely proud of their culture and heritage. Since Japan has such a largely homogeneous population, 98% being ethnically Japanese, the locals are more familiar with other Japanese people and tend to trust them more easily. Japanese media has also been criticized in recent years for promoting the narrative, AKA propaganda, that “there’s just something special about Japanese people that other nationalities don’t have”. A bit of a negative statement, but to put it lightly, they tend to pat themselves on the back every so often. This is something that the expat community is more aware of than the travel community.
Although this isn’t something you can do anything about (nor should you necessarily worry about), you can make yourself more familiar to the locals by demonstrating a certain level of awareness of their behavioral standards and way of doing things. If you behave more Japanese, even as a temporary visitor, then the locals will recognize your efforts. They know it’s not how you normally behave and the effort is appreciated. An example of this would be shouting oishii (delicious) really, really loudly when you eat something that tastes good. Let the chef or host know that they’ve given you something good. It can feel awkward to do at first, but trust me – it’s appreciated, and the locals do it too. Don’t be shy, take a deep breath, and shout to the heavens how tasty the food on your plate is.
6. Sit in seiza
Difficulty level: Painfully difficult
This is, hands down, the hardest one to do out of all of these tips to impress. If you don’t know what seiza is, it’s basically folding your legs under yourself and sitting firmly on the soles of your feet. Unless you’re extra supple and flexible, it’s unlikely you can do this for longer than 5 – 10 minutes without experiencing an uncomfortable cramp and pain in your thighs, calves and feet. If you can do this, you’re going to impress everyone – not just Japanese people. You’re going to impress your parents, your college professor and anyone in your nearby vicinity. The only time you’ll really have the opportunity to sit like this is during a tea ceremony, or when seated at a traditional Japanese restaurant on tatami mats. Even then, totally optional – but sit to impress, right?
7. Sing a song at karaoke in Japanese
Difficulty level: Exceptionally difficult
Remember when I said sitting in the seiza position is the most difficult thing you can do? I lied. This one is the hardest, especially if you don’t have a conversational familiarity with Japanese. The pacing of the songs, knowing where words pause and link, and simply memorizing the lyrics to sing fluently enough is going to take a good couple of weeks of consistent practice. Then once you’ve learned the song, you’ll need to somehow get a bunch of Japanese people into a karaoke room with you. If you’re particularly brave or confident in your singing abilities, you can go to a karaoke bar and sing in front of a bunch of strangers that are dining. Will it be terrifying and challenging? Yes. Will you remember it forever? Without a doubt. Although this one is exceptionally difficult, the payoff is definitely worth it. Time to start practising, I guess?
So there you have it! Seven actionable tips to impress the locals in Japan ranked from easiest to hardest. Easy enough for the most part, right? Let’s hear your tips that helped you fit in in a foreign country, whether as an expat or a traveller!