Etiquette in Japan is a tricky topic. I’ve had a couple ideas on things I wanted to post regarding certain customs, but it is hard to define modern Japanese customs. The proper way to conduct business or receive gifts in Iwakuni is different from Kyoto or Misawa. Like many countries, geographic regions have their own norms and behaviors – even their own dialect. So this post speaks to customs and etiquette that we have experienced in our local community. It does not mean that it is a generally accepted modern custom in all parts of Japan.
When we first came to Japan we noticed little trays next to all the cashiers. When you pay it is generally inappropriate to hand the cashier money and as the cashier will not directly hand change back to you. Instead it is proper to place your money in the tray to which the cashier will count in front of you (another interesting thing to watch) and then provide you change in the same tray. If you do come across a place that does not have the money tray then give and receive the money with both hands. The two hand rule applies to many things passed between people in Japan. It signifies that the item being passed is valuable.
For Christmas many people do not give gifts the same way that we do in the United States. Money is most often given although parents may buy small toys for children. At work I made gifts for the entire office. I have been collecting glass jars for a few months and made Chex Muddy Buddies (white trash, puppy chow). For every Japanese coworker that I gave a gift I received one in return. This is an obligatory custom. I did learn that making my gift was not customary. Buying pre-packaged snacks and candies is more appropriate, but I can “get away with it because [I’m] American…and this tastes better than Japanese cookies” as one Japanese coworker commented.
When I worked at the bank we would often have people come in requesting specific denominations and cleanliness. For example, if you are invited to a wedding you should give crisp new bills signifying the start of something new. There should also be an odd number of bills so that it cannot be divided by two – an unlucky sign for a new couple. Funerals are the exact opposite. We often would have customers request the dirtiest bills available. This signifies that the death was unexpected and the giver did not have time to visit the bank. Unfortunately money in Japan is very clean and nice compared to Western money so, ironically, finding dirty money means a trip to the bank.
At my previous job I worked with Japanese women who were married to military or former military. At my new job I work with many Japanese people who have never been out of the country and some that speak very little English. It definitely has been a new experience. While the office reports to an American major, there are mid-level supervisors who are Japanese. Watching their work customs and greetings intrigued me. For example, leaving before your boss is considered poor behavior. In fact, the supervisor makes a small show every day when leaving so his associates know it is okay to leave. There is also obligation gifts that are customary when one goes on vacation or goes somewhere on the weekend. It is considered very rude to visit a place and not bring back a snack or food item. This applies even if you are on vacation on your own time. With an office of 25 people there are always small snacks to try come Monday morning!