Japan: A Culture Shock To The System

With all the hype of the recent Rugby World Cup, and the upcoming 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, the tourism industry in Japan is booming. Cities are becoming more foreigner-friendly, and there’s a world of resources online to help you plan a budget holiday over in the land of the rising sun. If you’re looking for something more long-term, it’s never been easier to snag a teaching gig, and spend a year or two over there.

Whether you go for two weeks or two years, you’re going to notice a load of differences between South Africa and Japan. You’ll enjoy some of these. Others you’ll enjoy somewhat less.

In a lot of ways these countries are polar opposites, and that’s why we’ve compiled this short list of some of the differences you’ll encounter if you decide to make the (long) journey to this weird and wonderful country.


1.  Customer service is not the same.

The Japanese are known for the excellent quality of their customer service. Whether you’re in a hotel,  grabbing coffee at a Starbucks, or browsing in the mall, you’ll be surrounded by (sometimes overly) attentive staff members, working the hardest to satisfy you, and smiling so broadly it’s a wonder their cheeks don’t actually crack (I taught elementary school and kindergarten; I know it hurts to maintain that grin). In a lot of ways, this is lovely. It’s especially lovely if you fancy the idea of a future society in which humans are served by robots. Japan is also known for its robotics technologies, but did you know that somehow, humans in the customer service industry can seem more robotic than the real thing?

In comparison, customer service in South Africa is slower, involves a lot more mistakes, and can leave the customer rolling her eyes as she stands somewhere in the middle of a long queue. Simultaneously, she’s on the phone trying to contact some customer service centre, which is playing annoying polyphonic tunes, and repeating “we are experiencing high call volumes, we appreciate your patience” in what’s supposed to be a soothing female voice (but really, you just hate her with a fiery passion by the end of it all).

Despite the utter frustration one can feel trying to get anything done in South Africa, when one does get through the queues (telephonic or otherwise) or when one has the waiter’s attention, it feels like a real human interaction. Customer service people are warmer, and feel a whole lot more human, and there’s something great about that too.

2. Commuting to work is a completely different experience.

If you live around Cape Town, you know where I’m going with this. 

The traffic in and out of town is something out of an apocalyptic film. You know the kind: everybody’s trying to escape the zombie outbreak in the city. The roads out are completely blocked with traffic. In a panic, people start to abandon their vehicles and walk to the safety of the countryside, taking their chances with the undead hordes rather than in a row of cars that isn’t moving, with no more water and no more snacks in the glove compartment.

It’s a horrifying scene.

In comparison, during their commute to work in Japan, most people can relax with a good book, a smartphone game they’re addicted to, or in some cases, pornographic material they should actually not be watching in public. This is because while they may have to sprint to catch a bus or a train, or a combination of these, once they’re on their vehicle of choice, it’s easy sailing (although as far as I know, most don’t commute via boat).

The exception, I think, is Tokyo. Saying the morning commuters in Tokyo are packed like sardines would be putting it lightly. At least the sardines are already dead and they don’t have to experience this particular torture. In this case I too would rather take my chances with a zombie stampede.

3. Vegan problems.

Before I left for Japan I was convinced that South Africa was not a vegan-friendly country. Going to a braai (South African BBQ) was a challenge involving lots of my own plastic containers of pre-made food, and restaurant menus felt like personal attacks.

In Japan, however, you can give up any notion of feeling secure in your plant-based diet. 

Try explaining the notion and watch heads explode. After your lengthy explanation you’re likely to find that they’ve still used fish broth in your meal.

Even one convenience store chain admitted that they don’t have have accurate information about which of their rice balls (which ostensibly have no need for any animal derived products) are actually vegan. Another said that NONE of their rice balls are vegan (even if they look it). Even if you’re one of the blessed few who can actually read labels, the information that’s legally required on those labels is so minimal that you’re probably not receiving an accurate picture anyway.

Japanese food is, without a doubt, incredible. It’s part of the experience of visiting the country. Just don’t expect it to be completely plant-based unless you put in the effort to seek out the very, very few places that cater specifically for that market.

Since coming back to Cape Town, I’m realising how much easier it is to follow a plant-based diet, and how many amazing options there actually are when eating out or cooking at home. Even if I do still receive some flack from my omnivorous friends.

4. On cleanliness.

This place is kinda dirty. I don’t know if you’ve noticed. It’s weird, because there are trash cans everywhere. For some reason, people choose not to use them.

On the contrary, Japan has a notorious lack of trash cans, and yet…no trash. Which is even more bizarre when you consider how much plastic packaging is wrapped around every single thing. Are businessmen just walking around with plastic wrappers shoved into their pockets? Who knows, but those wrappers are certainly not on the streets.

5. To jay-walk, or not to jay-walk.

In Japan: Don’t do it. Unless you’re in the Kansai region where apparently this is more accepted. 

In South Africa: The light is not going to change. Cross the road when you find a gap in the oncoming traffic, or wait there until old age.

6. Escalator etiquette

The Japanese will line up nicely on the left side of the escalator, so that those in a hurry can pass easily on the right. Except for the ones in Osaka who line up on the right, because as previously mentioned, those Kansai people are wild. Either way, it’s all very civilised.

Back here in South Africa though, anything goes, and more often than not the escalator won’t be working and you’ll have to climb them like stairs. The plus side of this is that you get an unplanned leg workout in.


These are just a few of the many differences between these two amazing countries. A complete list would take multiple lifetimes to compile, and leave you with nothing to be surprised by when you arrive!

Whether you prefer Mzanzi or Nippon better is, of course, up to you, but your life can only be enhanced by experiencing both and deciding on your own, instead of taking my word for it. 

This article was adapted from one originally posted on https://caughtinthekawaii.blogspot.com

Published by Melissa da Costa

Deputy Editor, lover of cats, coffee sampler.

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