Jul 30, 2018

Street savvy Japan: A guide to urban Japanese behavior

Street savvy Japan: A guide to urban Japanese behavior  photo

Maintaining a level of street savvy in Japan means getting to grips with a number Japan street smarts, being aware of cultural peccadillos, and fine-tuning the street side senses in order to pick up on some of the finer behavioral nuances of the Japanese pedestrian.  

A survival guide to the kind of “hoods” as portrayed by the likes of NWA this ain’t -- the streets of Japan present few threats by comparison -- but what follows will hopefully help the visitor or newbie to Japan slip into the urban flow with a little more dexterity.

This post should also be qualified by mentioning that much of what follows in this street savvy guide to Japan is based largely on experiences in, and observations of, Tokyo, and is almost exclusively directed at street behavior in Japan’s cities.

While you're walking

The Japanese walk slowly

Depending on one’s country of origin, the speed at which the majority of Japanese walk might come as a surprise. For many foreign pedestrians, the Japanese take a distinctly ponderous approach to walking the streets, somewhat at odds with images of efficiency and a life busy at work.

The consequence of this, for those that like to open up the stride, can be a feeling of frustration. Those who want to make faster progress will have to do plenty of bobbing and weaving. This is emphatically the case during weekends in popular city districts -- think Shibuya, Shinjuku, Akihabara, Shijo Dori et al -- where one might have ultimately be forced into following the dictates of the masses.

What it also means is that when the Japanese say it’ll take 20 minutes to walk from A to B, it may well turn out to be just 10 minutes for you!

Eating while walking

Apparently it is frowned upon to eat while on the go in Japan. We say “apparently” because this streetside peccadillo is named dropped in just about every behavioural guide to Japan and yet this expat has never been on the receiving end of any furrowed sets of eyebrows at having done so.

Anyway, there’s no smoke without fire, as they say, so perhaps there’s some truth here. Ice creams and drinks would seem to be OK. Chomping down on a Big Mac as you negotiate the sidewalks, maybe not.

Rushing for escalators

We’ve dropped this one in here, less as a point of street savvy, but more as a point of irritation. It’s not uncommon for Japanese pedestrians to break out of the default lethargic walking pace to make a dash for the escalator, only to then stop dead on the thing as it ambles its way upwards.

Of course, people are perfectly within their rights to do this, it just appears a little odd is all.

Smoking and walking in Japan

Really, there are enough designated smoking areas in urban Japan that even the most impolite of smokers in the grasp of a craving shouldn’t have too much trouble seeking out a place to light up.

Obviously though, there are people out there who just don’t care about others, so it’s not unusual (although not so common) to see people walking while smoking.

In some areas of Japan you’ll see streets marked with signage indicating that this is a non-smoking area. Local authorities often employ retired workers to head out on patrol and issue fines to guilty parties. It must be a tough gig! Although not one that keeps them so busy.

If you need to smoke, train stations, some convenience stores, entrances to pachinko parlors, and parks are usually a safe bet for finding designated smoking areas.


Walking with smartphones

The level of public smartphone (and other portable device) gawking has reached dystopian proportions here in Japan. It’s particularly prevalent in and around train stations. Despite pleas and poster campaigns from authorities, and every other barely literate toddler seeming to sport a set of lenses as thick as jam jars, it shows no signs of abating. What it means for the fellow pedestrian then is another potential obstacle and object of irritation while walking the streets.

Umbrellas for all seasons

Street savvy Japan: A guide to urban Japanese behavior  photo


Where this expat hails from, use of an umbrella, even in the throes of a torrential downpour, is, well, confusing by its absence. It’s just not “cool,” for the fellas at least.  

In Japan though, the umbrella is a standard piece of street kit for any demographic and one that is made readily available. During rainy days then, expect walking progress to be impeded by an army of pedestrians putting on their best impression of a Roman legion laying siege to the elements.

Where umbrella-based frustration might be more acute is when the sun comes out, and not just in summer. In some countries the first signs of a sun beam might induce a collective shedding of clothes. Here in Japan though many people do exactly the opposite -- adding more layers to their outfits, accessorising them with inexplicable sun visors and umbrellas.

One would like think this is down to health concerns, and certainly, given recent Biblical summer temperatures in Japan, umbrellas could be essential for some.  

In many cases though, one suspects it’s all in a bid to maintain the “porcelain skin” that many Japanese are so fond of. Either way, expect skin complexity to be a priority over your ability to get from A to B on foot.

It's for charity

Back home, walking down pedestrianized shopping streets in the center of the city can mean running a gauntlet of plucky students collecting on behalf of charity. At the risk of sounding like a miserable curmudgeon, it can be a right pain in the rear.

Collectors of charity coin tend to be a little more passive in Japan and are few and far between when compared to back home. Where one might be approached is when waiting for lights to change at a busy pedestrian crossing. Listen out for a jittery, “Hello. Excuse me.”  

Quite how far the English goes beyond this, this expat can’t be sure. Anyway, if you’re not feeling charitable, these people will offer little resistance.

Without wanting to undermine the charitable effort, Japan has suffered in the past from some of these “collectors” setting up non-existent causes and pocketing the donations for themselves.


Most emergency service vehicles in Japan, when called into action, lack the kind of impressive street speed that one might see in other countries. In fact, in this regard, they are a positive disappointment. Still, they will run a red light, but you will be given ample warning and time to get out of the way.

Japan’s touts

Street touts in Japan are typically working for izakaya (Japanese-style pubs) or the nation’s myriad of “adult” establishments. In most cases, certainly in the case of the latter, they won’t bother with foreigners (although they will be an obstacle to weave around).

In some districts, well, Tokyo’s Roppongi, the touts can be a bit of a pain with their promises of bars filled with local women lusting after a bit of “foreign.” The more amazing / desperate their pitches sound, the less likely they are to be true. At best you’ll be the only punter(s) in the bar. At worst, you’ll wake up alone with a stinking hangover and no money or plastic in your wallet. Keep moving!

Japan’s “adult” industry will sometimes take a more direct approach to drumming up business by sending working ladies out onto the street. In some cases they may be “freelancing.” Either way, they’ll often appear more as ladies-out-to-lunch rather than an explicit picture of high heels and fishnets. Gents, you might be offered a “massage,” in English. If you are, it will almost always be delivered with what appears to these ears as a Chinese inflexion.  

What happens if you say, “Yes.”? No idea!

What side are you on? - Escalators

In the Kanto region (Tokyo and surrounds) you stand on the left, and walk up on the right. It’s the opposite way round in Kansai (Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe et al).  

Few people are likely to express any negativity if they get stuck behind someone who doesn’t know, or doesn’t care, about which side they should be standing. In many cases they’ll just wait the situation out. If this expat is behind you, you’ll be asked to move out of the way.

Play the waiting game at Japan’s traffic lights

Street savvy Japan: A guide to urban Japanese behavior  photo

If police in Japan see you crossing on a red light, they likely give you a blast of the verbal through the loudspeaker. Nothing more. Still, maybe this is shame enough to make the locals wait at pedestrian crossings until the lights indicate it is safe to cross … even with no cars visible at all.

It can be a frustration but this expat has a policy of crossing anyway, unless there are kids around (and / or police).  

To exacerbate the situation, even when the lights in Japan tell you it’s safe to cross, cars turning left can still come through the crossing. Of course, they are supposed to wait for clear gaps, but some of them will try to (slowly) create their own.

The propensity for pedestrians in Japan to follow the dictates of traffic lights is at odds with attitudes when they get behind the wheel. In this case they seem more than happy to zip through the first couple of seconds of a red light. 

Cyclists on the sidewalk

The shopping bicycle (mamachari) is a de rigueur bit of kit for daily-life Japan. Almost everyone has one. On the busier roads most casual cyclists will stick to the sidewalks, weaving among pedestrians and clearing foot traffic with a ring of their bell.

While bicycle lanes are on the increase, the pedestrian in urban Japan should expect to be sharing sidewalk space with these two-wheelers.

Safety in urban Japan

Carrying cash

While Japan is getting ever more “card” friendly, this is still a cash-based society, and a comparatively safe one at that, so most people here won’t think too much about carrying around the kind of money that might break one out in a cold sweat in other parts of the world.

Of course, you don’t want to get too casual about such things so people should always give a little consideration as to how much money one might be prepared to lose should they be, in the case of Japan, rather unlucky.  

While women in Japan tend to carry wallets / purses in a handbag, the blokes here tend to stuff theirs into pant / trouser pockets. Usually the back pocket. Add to this a lingering trend for wearing “skinny fit” and the result is a wallet situation so easily visible that even a cataract ridden pensioner could spot a potential wallet nab from a hundred yards in Japan.

Yes, there’s the whole, “When in Rome, … “ thing, but in this case, especially for the tourist, it’s surely good sense to keep the wallet a little more secure.

The same goes for keys, which can often be seen dangling openily from from said back pockets.

Honestly, these people wouldn’t last five minutes in hungrier parts of the world.

Falling asleep in public

It’s not an uncommon sight to see Japanese people sleeping in public. It’s usually as a result of too much booze or a hangover. They are generally ignored, although if spotted by police they will likely be woken from their slumber.

In some cases sleeping-beauty-in-public may be a result of being knackered from work or having missed the last train home.

The point here is that there are far worse places in the world to fall asleep streetside. The next point is that this doesn’t mean it should be considered a good idea. 

If in doubt, head for the train station

Where train stations in other parts of the world might have been caste away to areas of the city that people are often in a hurry to leave, in urban Japan, they are the center of everything.  

For people in Japan then who are lost, looking for help, looking for the comfort of other people, a place to eat, the police, a map, a smoking area, a pharmacy, a convenience store, other foreigners, tourist information, an ATM, a taxi, … yes, a train, the urban train station is the best place to head for. In Tokyo especially, you are always within reasonable walking distance of a train station.

You don’t know if you don’t ask

It wasn’t so long ago that to attempt to ask for directions of a local in Japan was to flirt with cold rejection. These days, saturated as the nation is by Olympic fervour, the number of locals who, deep down, can’t wait for chance to unleash a bit of English and do their bit to help “hapless tourist” is increasing exponentially. In short, now’s the time to get lost in Japan and not have a clue about how to ask for help in Japanese.

If seeking support from random strangers on the street isn’t your thing, head to a police box (koban - often near train stations) or even a convenience store. (The latter tend to be staffed these days by fellow foreigners and / or locals who appear to have done a crash course in English).

Walking Japan's streets at night

Street savvy Japan: A guide to urban Japanese behavior  photo

It could never be reasonably advised to wander quiet city streets at night, especially alone. There are nefarious characters in all of the world’s cities. That being said, if there was a nation whose quiet city streets one were to find oneself on alone, then Japan surely fairs better than most others.

Urban Japan has few areas that should be considered “off limits” at all costs and it may well be hard to distinguish any area as being particularly “rough.”  

Should you stray off course of an evening, don’t panic. Walk with purpose towards clusters of lights (even “red” ones -- where this lost expat has been genuinely helped out by touts), main thoroughfares (never far away), or a train station (if you know where one is and usually not far away).  

Drinking and being drunk on the streets

Streetside drinking is a fairly common sight in urban Japan, and isn’t the exclusive realm of the homeless. Some alcohol and cigarette vending machines can make for the scene of impromptu post-work gatherings where joining in is a free-for-all, and a great way to mingle with the locals.

Parks and city squares (as much they are in Japan) can also be the scene for a few canned bevvies.  

Ultimately, most people are well behaved with their drink in Japan (if maybe a little louder than usual) and things rarely, if ever, dissolve into a kind of post-big-game thuggery and vandalism that one might have seen many times in other parts of the world. (If you’re familiar with this, don’t think that you can try it out in Japan and then expect everyone to be on best-friend terms a short while later.)

In fact, people on the streets of Japan are pretty tolerant of someone who’s had far too much to drink … even when they’re throwing some of it back up!

That said, it’s not a cool look.

Other Japan street smarts 

Littering in Japan

Japan doesn’t have the kind of draconian legislation that will see you having your hands chopped off for sticking chewing gum to a lampost. Urban Japan is pretty clean though, in the sense of there being a lack of litter.

It’s odd then to think of, or read about, there being a lack of dustboxes / garbage cans / rubbish bins on the streets here.

Personally, it’s never been too much of a bother. For almost any kind of drinks container, vending machines in Japan tend to have garbage collection next to them. All train stations have places to get rid of your trash (unless a heavy-hitting political leader is in town, in which case all bins will be taped up or removed), and most convenience stores have similar facilities. Plus, there are enough designated smoking areas with ash trays to handle cigarette butts.

Should you litter (through a lack of regard for the environment) in Japan, chances are no one will pick you up on it. Rather, someone will have to pick it up after you. It doesn’t make you any less of an idiot though.

Wifi spots

After having been slow to get involved with free / public wifi, urban Japan (well, Tokyo at least) can’t seem to offer enough of it.

The problem is, much of it seems slow / weak to the point of being worthless, and much of rest that does work requires users to set up accounts or hand over some degree of personal information (particularly in the case of coffee shops).  

The point here then, is that the street savvy, urban Japan wanderer shouldn’t be blinded by the promise of free wifi, and instead should be prepared for the frustration of said wifi being a bit sketchy.  

That said, things are getting better, again, in Tokyo at least.  

Wifi offered at Tokyo Metro stations seems to work (just enter your email address), although it doesn’t extend to the trains, and more and more independent cafes and bars seems to be letting customers get online with a minimum of fuss.  

Dress for the occasion

It’s not unusual to flick through the pages of a guide book and find a few sentences about how such-and-such a country prefers a more conservative form of dress. In the case of Japan, this is perhaps true when it comes to the workplace or ceremonial occasions. Street side though, almost anything seems to go in urban Japan, stopping short of your swimwear for the beach. 

If anything, Japan seems to like to dress up, rather than keep it casual -- even for a simple run to the convenience store. And by “dress up” we mean the latest in fashion, mad cosplay, and outfits on the youth that are probably giving parents sleepless nights.

There are limits though -- rocking up to the club or a fancy restaurant in a pair of flip-flops and board shorts won’t get you through the door.

The point about Japan coming to terms with tattoos has been so labored by now that it seems hard to add anything to the conversation. Getting into public baths and swimming pools remains a problem. Out on the streets in major urban centers, those covered head-to-toe will likely draw some stares, but that’s not the end of the world, is it?

Get a room!

Displays of public affection in Japan are basically limited to holding hands, a peck on the cheek (maybe the lips), and the odd hug. A full on snog, tongues and all, well, is a rarity. It’s not that this is a nation of prudes (even the lightest research into the world of Japanese adult movies and services will quickly reaffirm that), it’s just that they prefer to keep these things behind closed doors. Even the youth.  

LGBT couples will likely find the streets of urban Japan a comfortable place to be.  The brutal truth about this however, could be that the Japanese are unlikely to express their opposition to, well, most things, including public displays of affection, whoever is putting on the display.  Still, Japan's youth seem to be an increasingly savvy bunch and society as a whole is inching along the path to greater acceptance.  Plus, the general limitations on PDA in Japan don't really give people much to kick up a fuss about.  

News flash! - Japan's society is aging rapidly.  This means there are a lot of people on the streets who may well be out of touch with current attitudes. 

If you’re an old man in Japan, anything goes

OK, this is a sweeping generalisation that is grossly unfair, but in the case of many of the “rules” above, there’s a significant chance that the people breaking them, getting in the way, showing a lack of regard for others, smoking where they please, and drinking where they please, will be old men. Except in the case of using smartphones!

Again, this is unfair, but there’s the ghost of a point here -- Japan is inching its way out of a male-dominated society, but it’s also an aging society, so there are a lot of old men around who have been used to having things their own way. Just as Japan is tolerant of its drunks then, it’s also tolerant of the faux pas committed by the elderly. In many cases, these fax pas are innocent mistakes and a lack of awareness. In some cases though, you just know the guilty party simply doesn’t care.

In this guide to being street savvy in Japan, the word “tolerant” has cropped in more than once sentence. It’s worth highlighting then that while most cultural faux pas committed on Japan’s streets will likely go unmentioned, it doesn’t mean that one should adopt a policy of “anything goes.”  

In most cases, Japan will go out of its way to avoid confrontation. Whether this is to the nation’s detriment or well-being isn’t always clear, but for the time being it seems to be another Japan streetsmart, perhaps the most important, that we should be aware of.

Any tips for keeping it street savvy in Japan? Let us know in the comments.

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Image top: Marco Verch Flickr License



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